Projects Threaten to Alter Israel’s Negev Desert Beyond Recognition

A rail line, an airport and hotels - it’s all bad as far as some Israeli environmentalists are concerned.

Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat

The Negev and Arava desert regions in southern Israel offer hikers a quiet remoteness, for now anyway. On tap are reservoirs, a rail line that crosses streams and hills, an airport and hotels. And these are only some of the projects.

As environmental groups seek alternatives and promote a government initiative to protect some of the land, planning officials say the area needs lots more infrastructure. They say the region can be developed even as the environment is protected.

But some ecologists aren’t convinced. They fear that ecosystems will collapse as land is removed, or as fences, roads and dirt paths get in the way. The following are six major projects.

1. Clean energy development

Solar panels and wind turbines create environmentally safe energy but cause problems for the environment and landscape. Solar panels especially; they require plenty of open space. Officials at Hevel Eilot plan to turn the region into a major solar-energy center; some panels have already been installed.

Officials at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel fear that the wind turbines will harm migrating birds passing through the area. Environmentalists want as few solar panels as possible to be installed in open areas. They hope orders will be issued to stop the turbines when flocks of birds fly through the region.

2. Tourism in Timna

The major development program for the Timna region is a large area for hotels  north of Timna Park in the Sasgon Valley. Environmentalists fear that the area, still undeveloped and part of the unique landscape around the park, will be damaged. The Agra hotel firm, which is putting up the hotels, says the project will integrate with the desert landscape and boost tourism.

3. Timna Airport

For many years environmentalists have fought the construction of a new airport in the Avrona region. Finally it was decided that the airport will be built in the Timna region, and work began roughly six months ago. Environmentalists are particularly upset about large dikes to be built in Nahal Raham to protect the airport from floods.

“The dikes will damage the landscape terribly and block the passage of wild animals," says Roi Talbi, the Society for the Protection of Nature’s ecologist for the Eilat region. "The dikes are necessary, but maybe they could be built in a way that minimizes damage to the environment.”

4. Expansion of farmland

Thousands of dunams of unspoiled land in the southern Arava region will become farmland. Talbi says this is being done based on agreements with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, but the result will be damage to the Avrona Nature Reserve, one of the most important nature reserves in the area.

5. Reservoirs

Talbi fears the damage that the construction of a reservoir will cause to the Yotvata sand dunes. “While it’s true that the reservoir in Yotvata damages a beautiful area, it’s necessary for the area’s development,” says Udi Gat, the chairman of the Hevel Eilot Regional Council.

Officials of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, say they greatly value the environment and that protective measures will be incorporated into the master plan, which has been approved by the Water Authority.

6. The rail line to Eilat

Environmentalists fear that the planned rail line will severely harm nature reserves, including those in the lovely Nahal Sa’if area. The position of the National Parks and Nature Reserves Council, which is part of the Environmental Protection Ministry, could delay the approval process for the line.

Without the council’s approval, land for the line cannot be taken from the nature reserves. Last week, council officials asked the government to consider a line that would limit the amount of damage to the environment.

“The railway route will pass through 36.5 kilometers of nature reserves, between Mishor Yamin and Hatzeva,” the council wrote. “In the 50 years of its existence, the National Parks and Nature Reserves Council has never encountered a request for such a large amount of land.”

The Sasgon Valley, which is set for a hotel complex. Credit: Zafrir Rinat

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