Water wonders in the desert

Imagine: pineapples, vineyards and millions of trees growing in the desert … and a million litres of effluent and factory wastewater – both purified – irrigating the crops of the future.

These are a few of the wonders I saw on my recent visit to Israel. Deep concern about climate change and the current water crisis in the Western Cape drove me to explore a few examples of Israel’s achievements in the Negev desert. It was mind-blowing.

I last visited Israel 26 years ago when Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) began. The Jewish National Fund of SA was the first to show interest in FTFA, an organisation created from a vision of a healthier, greener, more food secure and climate resilient South Africa. They arranged a two-week study tour for our founding board members to meet experts in trees and forestry, water management, agriculture and soil. Israel’s solutions-driven innovation and implementation astounded and inspired us then and is even more relevant today.

In a country where land, water, arable soil and fossil fuels are scarce, foresight and clever technology, based on sound research, have created models of sustainability that other countries strive for – enough resources to sustain healthy lifestyles and economies, and, in some instances, abundance.

Israel leads the world with 80% water reuse. Water is successfully produced and harvested through desalination, biofilters and remarkably efficient management of wastewater. Quality water is delivered to all residents, farmers, industry and business, with excess provided to Jordan and the Palestinian Authorities.

The Sderot Resevoir was built (under missile fire) from a pragmatic vision to address drought in the southern Negev. It purifies for reuse all effluent from Sderot, a town of 26 000 inhabitants, and wastewater from their factories and farms.

Besor Research and Development Centre’s work with local farmers is resulting in better crops for export and local use, in healthier soils, using minimal, and often even saline, water.

Charts around the old tower over the forest of Yatir show recorded rainfall rising annually from the first planting – which aimed to combat desertification in the 1960s – and as more trees were planted and grew. This initiative is an inspiration to FTFA’s initial greening and climate-change work, as today, this green forest of over 4 million trees is spectacular.

Be-er Sheva, a model city, shows how nature should be embraced in urban development. It is an example of pioneering urban planning that integrates natural capital. Landscaping for aesthetics and resource management enhance attractive, well-designed suburbs. Trees line the streets, providing much-needed shade and recreation areas. They help to slow and clean water run off, as well as cleaning the air and absorbing greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

There is much to learn from Israel’s green tech and innovation and they are willing to share. Replicating projects like these few I was privileged to see could greatly improve South African lives. The Western Cape, in drought and predicted to face a seriously dry future, would benefit immensely from these world water leaders. We should have implemented these measures decades ago … but now is the next best time.

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