Making the Desert Bloom: Turning the Negatives of the Negev Into a Positive

The Israelis have big plans for living where the Dead Sea ends and the desert begins.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole

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The landscape in Israel’s Arava Valley is the picture of punishment. This was, after all, in the general neighborhood of where the Bible says the Israelites wandered aimlessly for 40 years as retribution for disobeying God.

The climate here is among the driest on the planet, getting about 1 inch of rain (20 to 30 mm) in an average year and where the sun perches in a cloudless sky for all but maybe two weeks per annum. Its rays, as if shining through a magnifying glass, scorch the ground below, sending temperatures well above 100 degrees F (40 C) during a chunk of summer, as well as parts of spring and fall.

Below a thin layer of dust and sand, the ground is mostly baked hardscrabble, while the landscape offers a diversity of topographic features that look designed for some brutal, extreme sport. Between mountain ranges that are really more walls bordering this great gash in the Earth—the Arava is the southernmost and deeper end of the Jordan Rift Valley—much of the otherwise flat valley floor is punctuated by steep drops into serpentine gullies that look like a combination of moonscape and the Dakota Badlands.

The Negev Mountains to the west rise as high as 3,400 feet (1,037 meters). On the east, the dry, barren peaks of the Edom range, reach upwards of 4,780 feet (1,457 meters) above sea level, which is more than 6,000 feet above the surface of the Dead Sea—the mountains’ and Arava’s neighbor to the north and west.

So named because very little can live in its highly saline waters, the Dead Sea’s shores are some 1,300 feet (423 meters) below sea level, making them the planet’s lowest elevation on land and the area seem all the more hellish, because it’s, well, closer to that subterranean dungeon of total torment.

At least that’s how some of us may see this parched, seemingly desolate place. To many others, the Arava is home. To Israel it is, ironically, the source of 60% of the country’s vegetable exports and a linchpin in its plans for the future.

The Peace Road

On the western edge of the Arava Valley, itself part of the Negev Desert, one of our delightfully hospitable and knowledgeable guides for the morning, Maayan Plaves Kitron, leads us through a gate in the security fence that surrounds the moshav of Hatseva. Most Israeli villages outside the larger towns and cities have such a fence, which is understandable, given the country’s war-torn history. Yet, here, along the Jordanian border, it’s been more of a hedge for the past 20 or so years against what could happen.

Since its signing in late 1994, the Israel-Jordan peace treaty has offered a measure of security and stability in the Arava not experienced in many other parts of either country. Marking the occasion of the accord, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a non-governmental, privately funded organization, built what’s called the Peace Road.

It’s a surreal sight. Nestled in the riverbed, between charred, craggy mountains and the badlands, are these lush, shade-giving date trees.

It’s a surreal sight. Nestled in the riverbed, between charred, craggy mountains and the badlands, are these lush, shade-giving date trees.

Unlike Highway 90 a kilometer or two to the west that allows largely unfettered travel to and from the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat, the barely two-lane Peace Road was built with scenery in mind. Along the full length of the border with Jordan, the route winds its way just inside Israel, meandering along the lissan marl badlands, named for the gullie-and-mound structures carved by the region’s rare rains, then down into the Arava Riverbed, a typically dry, but wide furrow in the landscape. It’s here the road abuts the unmarked and, as emphasized by the locals, “friendly” Jordanian border.

“There was never really a marked, official border between the two countries,” says Kitron, the horticulture coordinator for Central and Northern Arava Research & Development, who’s taken us from Hatseva, via the Peace Road, to a roadside pavilion overlooking the riverbed just to our east. “When the peace treaty with Jordan was signed, they allowed us to keep this area in Israel,” pointing to a miles-long finger of land replete with date trees, as well greenhouses and net houses.

It’s a surreal sight. Nestled in the riverbed, between charred, craggy mountains and the badlands, are these lush, shade-giving date trees. From our vantage point about three-quarters of a mile away, the plantation, consisting of hundreds of these trees, all tall and green, aligned in perfect rows, looks more like carefully placed AstroTurf, cut and laid at precise right angles to mark a walkway around greenhouses and other structures. Each easily a football-field long and looking almost fluorescent in the morning sun, these buildings, Kitron tells us, are filled with fruit and vegetable crops that help make the region the primary supplier of Israel’s growing agricultural exports.

“The greenhouse effect is working for us,” says Kitron, who smiles, then grimaces, sighs and reconsiders. “Maybe that’s not a good joke, but as you can see, we’re turning the desert, at least parts of it, into productive farms.”

Research Oasis

In addition to Hatseva, the Central Arava—a section of the valley roughly equidistant between Eilat and the main body of the Dead Sea—is home to four other moshavs, agricultural communities similar to the traditional Israeli Kibbutz. Yet, while both rely on community labor, the moshav’s farms are individually owned as opposed to the Kibbutz’s collective arrangement.

Maayan Plaves Kitron discusses Arava R&D’s far-ranging research, which includes agricultural-related projects, as well as studies on how to raise tropical fish.

Maayan Plaves Kitron discusses Arava R&D’s far-ranging research, which includes agriculture-related projects, as well as studies on how to raise tropical fish.

Other than dates, crops in this section of the desert are grown mostly within greenhouses and net houses, which help control climate as well as infestation by insects and the pathogens they often carry—all the more critical for a region that exports so much of its yield. As noted above, vegetables are the main export, comprising some 80% of the crops raised here, while fruit trees, flowers and other ornamentals make up the rest.

At the center of the region’s agriculture is Kitron’s employer, the name of which is typically shortened to Arava R&D. Funded by JNF, and to a lesser extent local and national governments, the consortium of researchers focuses on what Kitron calls “practically applied” projects. For instance, she says, “When we introduce a new crop to farmers, we must first research potential markets, so there is a better chance of earning an income.”

Research also focuses on farming methods, such as integrated pest management; comparing the benefits of incandescent, fluorescent and LED light sources in photosynthesis and photoperiodic lighting experiments; and yield- and quality-increasing methodologies. In this desert region, water, too, is a focus of research.

The Desert Gets Thirstier

Arava R&D Director Boaz Hurwitz explains that the Central Arava is not connected to Israel’s national water system. “We have to drill for our water,” he says, which creates a number of challenges, one being that the water from these wells has a high level of salinity.

“We not only have to be efficient with our water, but also we have to experiment all the time how to grow with it, because as we continue to use that groundwater, we find it’s less water and more salt.” That changing salinity, he notes, can change the productivity of various crops year to year, even within the same growing season.

Then, too, consider that the majority of the wells, which were drilled before the 1994 peace accord was signed, are now on the Jordanian side of the border. “It’s complicated,” says Hurwitz. “They are to supply us with water, which they do, and [Israeli] companies maintain the wells.” Yet, he says, it’s hard enough to determine how much water remains in such underground sources in a normal situation. “With two different countries, drawing from the wells, it’s very difficult.”

In an effort to replenish the area’s aquifers, the Regional Council with help from JNF has built reservoirs to capture winter rainwater. The hope is the water will penetrate the surface and find its way to those underwater streams and pools that have existed for millennia. The experiment is relatively new and the results are not yet known.

What is known is that Israel has great plans for the region. Official numbers show some 3,300 residents living in the area, which comprises about 580 square miles. That’s roughly the same population density as Wyoming and Alberta. Yet, Israeli officials hope to encourage many more residents to move here. According to the Central Arava Regional Council, the goal is to double that population within a decade.

Overall, various private and quasi-governmental agencies in Israel are promoting a similar increase throughout the Negev. The desert, which comprises about 60% of Israel’s land area, is home to only 7.5% of its residents. Officials hope to increase that population to about 1 million (from 600,000) for a number of reasons, including the need to decrease population density in the center of the country; creating new economic opportunities, such as farming; and, say some, to ensure the region remains majority Jewish.

Whatever the reason, an increasing population will strain already tight natural resources. “It will be difficult,” says Hurwitz. “But solving problems, that’s what we Israelis do.”

Bearing Fruit, Revealing Secrets

Problem-solving is a major focus of Arava R&D. Walk through the center’s greenhouses just outside Hatseva and you’ll see vegetable and fruit plants wired from the ceiling, growing like vines and actually producing for 9 to 10 months of the year. Numerous varieties of edibles are researched here, as are ornamentals, including flowers, Kitron’s focus. As with other produce, cut flowers make for a lucrative and mostly export market in winter months, when other countries, such as those in Europe, are largely agriculturally dormant.

The golden berry in its paper-like shell, is closely related to the tomatillo. It’s one of the plants being researched for cultivation by Arava R&D.

The golden berry in its paper-like shell, is closely related to the tomatillo. It’s one of the plants being researched for cultivation by Arava R&D.

Much like an Extension service, area farmers spend time at Arava R&D with researchers, who also visit area farms, exchanging the latest findings, as well as hard lessons learned, in soil, water and plant testing. R&D staff also teach at the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT), where students from mostly developing nations come to live and learn for a 10-month training session. (More on AICAT below.)

Scientists also perform some medical and basic science research at Arava R&D, including work with the area’s native flora and fauna. One such program is currently looking into potential medical applications of Asteriscus graveolens, a plant called the sinful star or fragrant oxeye. Long the source of a tea that’s considered the “chicken soup” of the area’s Bedouin communities, the desert plant shows promise for the treatment of certain cancers and neurological disorders.

“The desert still holds a few secrets,” says Noa Zer, the resource development director for the Central Arava Regional Council, one of the groups that helps fund and direct Arava R&D. “Uncovering those secrets is part of what we do, but it takes money, time and very smart people to do it.”


“If you don’t doubt, you don’t innovate,” says Ker, explaining that such skepticism is one of the greatest lessons taught by AICAT to its students. “This program is a character builder … and many of our students come from societies where they are expected to not question people in charge. AICAT teaches them to think for themselves.”

Noa Ker, with students Thidba Win and Phaithong Olachanh.

Noa Ker, with students Thidba Win and Phaithong Olachanh.

AICAT’s curriculum consists of many classes found in the usual ag schools in the U.S. and Canada, such as fertilization and irrigation, animal husbandry, plant protection and research methodology, as well as more general education courses like finance and computer skills. In addition to time in the classroom and R&D labs, the students, which number about 1,200 in a typical year and are mostly from Asia and Africa, work for area farms, earning minimum wage, while garnering practical experience.

Located in Sapir, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) south of Hatseva, the school is a joint venture between the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Central Arava Regional Council, and it receives financial support from JNF. Tuition and other fees cost approximately $3,000 US per student for the 10-month program.

“I have to be careful how I say this,” says Hanni Arnon, AICAT’s director, “because I want to be respectful of all [societies]. But our students learn so much more than just about agriculture.

“For instance, they see, here, women in roles of leadership, as heads of businesses, making decisions. They learn more about the importance of education. When they complete our program, they return to their homes knowing these things.”

Phaithong Olachanh, a student from Laos, tells a version of the “First Follower” story he heard in an AICAT lecture on community leadership: “A man begins dancing by himself. By himself, he looks crazy, but when others join in, he seems more of a leader.

“Leadership,” Olachanh smiles and says, “is not being normal. One of the things we learn at AICAT is that we can’t just have knowledge. We must have leadership to really help our community.”

“Yes, I want to change my country, not just agriculture,” says Myanmarese student Thidba Win. “What we learn here is a way of thinking. For every problem, they,” she says of her Israeli hosts, “have a solution. We see, too, we can make change, by changing small things that lead to big things.”

“That’s what we [Israelis] call ‘hutzpah,” says Ker. “I’ve had students tell me that ‘If you [Israel] were able to rise from the ashes with so little resources. We can learn to do it, too.’

“By the time these students finish their study here,” continues Ker, “they have Israel spice in them.”

For More Information

Central and Northern Arava Research & Development

Central Arava Regional Council


SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>