When it comes to deserts, Israel knows what to do

Standing in the shadow of the great pyramid, my bare shoulders slowly baking in the hot sun, I gazed off into the distance at red-rock mountains rising high above the dry, sandy desert. Sadly though, I wasn’t in Egypt, standing under the pyramids at Giza or Abu Sir. This pyramid was black and made of glass, and had a light beam in its apex that shone into the night sky.

Yes, I was in Las Vegas, and this was the Luxor — a loud, decadent, overly oxygenated hotel and casino at the south end of the Strip.

It was odd, I thought as I stood there, that just a week before I also had been standing in another desert — but how different it had been! A vast, wide plain of nothing, dry riverbeds winding across the desolate landscape … standing at a lookout point on the Scorpion Ascent, I saw no one and heard no sound. The silence beat on my ears as a dusty wind danced through my hair.

I was deep in the heart of the Negev Desert in Israel, on a press junket hosted by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Its aim was to show American journalists all the amazing things Israelis are doing in the sciences — from patching hearts to monitoring groundwater — but as interesting as I found everything we were learning, I was secretly far more enthralled by where we were learning it.

The desert isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. On my first visit to the Negev seven years earlier, I found myself walking across a flat plain in the Arava region, the greenhouses of Kibbutz Ketura glistening in the distance. I had just hiked up a mountain and down into the valley where the kibbutz lay, and I was anxious to fall into the soft white comfort of Ketura’s guesthouse.

Then something — a gentle wind, or perhaps a still, small voice — compelled me to look back from whence I’d come.

In the fading light, the mountains shone black, purple and brown. Layer upon layer, each a different color and shade, they edged higher toward the sky. I had never seen anything so tall that wasn’t made of steel and glass. For the first time, I felt truly humbled by nature.

The desert of Las Vegas couldn’t be more different. If you didn’t look out the window during the descent into McCarran International, you’d barely know you were in a desert at all. Here it’s not nature that humbles, but the unrelenting light and dazzle and noise.

Yet on this weekend in March, I saw something else.

As we passed by the 20-million-gallon water fountain outside the Bellagio, I flashed back to Israeli scientists talking about the difficulties of getting drinkable water in the desert.

As I watched the Luxor’s beam of light roar to life, I remembered the Jordanian BGU student who talked about converting the Negev’s most plentiful resource into solar energy.

As I took a bite of my salad at dinner, I recalled the long rows of lush, velvety bell pepper plants in a desert greenhouse, fed with desalinated water by a farmer with a Ph.D.

The simplicity of the Negev is a universe away from the sensory overload of Sin City. But in the end, they’re the same — too much sun, questionable soil quality, not enough water.

It’s hard to imagine tiny Israel giving tips to the casinos and clubs of the Strip. But the party can’t last forever. Fountains have been turned off, hotel signs beseech patrons to conserve. The Colorado River, which supplies most of the city’s water, is drying up.

Which means the future of Las Vegas may lie in the hands of Israeli scientists.

The innovations I learned about during my week in the Negev boggle the mind. The scientists at BGU are essentially wringing water from stones — and putting Israel on the forefront of desert technology.

So the next time you go to Vegas, notice the water flowing freely from the tap, the lights shining brightly through the night, the cool breeze of the air conditioning. Hopefully, you’ll be able to do that for decades to come.

But you can rest assured that somewhere along the line, it’ll all be thanks to Israel.

Rachel Freedenberg is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected].