Eco-logic

Experts Discuss Middle East Climate Change at JNF Workshop

Climate changes in the area are expected to cause extreme phenomena like massive flooding and droughts, as well as soil erosion and disappearance of plant life.

Ofer Vaknin

Experts attended a Jewish National Fund workshop this week set up to discuss the effect of climate change on the region. The workshop focused on the Negev, as well as other parts of Israel. Some participants sought to send the message that there has been a decrease in ecological activity due to climate change and human activity, and that intervention is necessary to restore the situation. Many nature preservation groups, however, are weary of human intervention in ecological processes, and are demanding that the situation be reexamined.

Climate changes in the area are expected to cause extreme phenomena like massive flooding and droughts, as well as soil erosion and disappearance of plant life. According to one participant at the conference, Prof. Moshe Shahak of Ben-Gurion University, results of climate change can already be seen in the Negev, and the same will soon be true for other parts of the country. Overgrazing and construction in open areas are expected to cause damage to both the views and natural resources in Israel as well.

The JNF has been especially active in the northern Negev during the last few decades. Projects in the area include collecting floodwater, and successfully diverting it to avoid damage to soil and limiting grazing to preserve plant life in areas included in the national forestry plan. The project also includes creating small reservoirs of flood water for planting trees, as well as building mounds of dirt to divert floodwater. These projects require the use of heavy equipment, which some claim is causing damage to the soil as well.

According to Yitzhak Moshe, an official in the JNF’s southern sector, the projects in the northern Negev are based on ancient agricultural processes that were common in the area, and help not only to preserve the soil but to create a wide variety of plant life. David Brand, the JNF’s chief forester, says trees that can withstand dry weather are being planted as a means of coping with climate change. Studies show extensive damage already to ecological mechanisms in the Negev meant to preserve natural resources, including the ecosystem’s ability to make use of flood water. Research further shows that a few years of drought have killed many bushes, which has led to increased soil erosion during flooding, which in turn damages land fertility. In some areas, the number of plant species has diminished while desertification has increased.

According to Brand, as long as desertification intensifies, there is no choice but to bring in engineers to ensure that floodwaters remain in the ecosystem and do their ecological duty of helping to sustain plant life. Without the JNF’s projects in the area, it will be impossible to reverse the damage already done. Brand admits that bringing in the heavy equipment needed to build the projects also damages the soil, but he claims that this damage can be undone within a decade, whereas reversing the desertification process could take centuries without human intervention.

The JNF’s projects in the northern Negev have come under harsh criticism recently from the Israeli Parks and Nature Authority, as well from as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. The two organizations claim that the JNF’s projects are actually causing damage to the ecosystem, rather than rehabilitating it.

In a position paper on planting in the Negev, Parks and Nature Authority chief scientist Yehoshua Shkedi wrote that the authority is also involved in rehabilitating the northern Negev, and that although there is need for human intervention in the ecological processes there, it is preferable in most areas that heavy equipment not be used due to the long-term damage caused to the soil. According to Shkedi, the JNF and the Parks and Nature Authority have come to agreements in the past over which areas are not in need of projects requiring heavy equipment, but that these agreements have not been upheld.

Brand, on the other hand, claims that all of the JNF’s construction has been presented to government committees that monitor the national forestry plans, which were devised by the Environmental Protection Ministry and approved by the Parks and Nature Authority.

The JNF projects, according to Shkedi, are causing comprehensive changes to the ecosystem in the northern Negev. Aside from the direct damage caused by the heavy equipment, Shkedi claims that the projects are changing the plant species, and that species unique to the Negev are disappearing, giving way to more common species that are better adapted to the new conditions. Shkedi pointed out that the argument is not over the need for intervention, but rather the amount of intervention necessary to repair the situation.