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50 Years Ago: The Reclamation of a Man-Made Desert

Israel is restoring to cultivation a land damaged by a millennium of abuse. The achievement is an example to a world that must face the task of increasing food supplies to feed a rising population
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Note: This story, originally published in our April 1960 issue of Scientific American, is being made available as a supplement to the April 2010 issue 50, 100, 150 Years Ago feature.

The State of Israel has undertaken to create a new agriculture in an old and damaged land. The 20th century Israelites did not find their promised land "Rowing with milk and honey," as their forebears did 3,300 years ago. They came to a land of encroaching sand dunes along a once-verdant coast, of malarial swamps and naked limestone hills from which an estimated three feet of topsoil had been scoured, sorted and spread as sterile overwash upon the plains or swept out to sea in Rood waters that time after time turned the beautiful blue of the Mediterranean to a dirty brown as far as the horizon. The land of Israel had shared the fate of land throughout the Middle East. A decline in productivity, in population and in culture had set in with the fading of the Byzantine Empire some 1,300 years ago. The markers of former forest boundaries on treeless slopes and the ruins of dams, aqueducts and terraced irrigation works, of cities, bridges and paved highways-all bore witness that the land had once supported a great civilization with a much larger population in a higher state of well-being.

Last year, as a finale to the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel, an international convention brought 485 farmers from 37 countries to see what had been accomplished. They found a nation of two million people, whose numbers had doubled in the decade, principally by immigration. Yet Israel was already an exporter of agricultural produce and had nearly achieved the goal of agricultural self-sufficiency, with an export/import balance in foodstuffs. It had more than doubled its cultivated land, to a million acres. It had drained 44,000 acres of marshland and extended irrigation to 325,000 acres; it had increased many-fold the supply of underground water from wells and was far along on the work of diverting and utilizing the scant surface waters. On vast stretches of uncultivable land it had established new range-cover to support a growing livestock industry and planted 37 million trees in new forests and shelter belts. All this had been accomplished under a national plan that enlisted the devotion of the citizens and the best understanding and technique provided by modern agricultural science. Israel is not simply restoring the past but seeking full utilization of the land, including realization of potentialities that were unknown to the ancients.

For the visiting farmers, many of whom came from the newer and less developed nations of the world, the example of Israel was a proof and a promise. Civilization is in a race with famine. The doubt as to the outcome is due not so much to the limitations of the earth's resources, plundered as they are, but to a lag in the uptake of progressive agricultural practices and failure in the distribution of the present output of food. More than two thirds of the people of the world are undernourished. Most of them live in the lands where mankind has lived longest in organized societies. There, with few exceptions, the soil is in the worst condition. The example of Israel shows that the land can be reclaimed and that increase in the food supply can overtake the population increase that will double the 2,800-million world population before the end of this century. Israel is a pilot area for the arid lands of the world, especially those of her Arab neighbors, who persist in their destitution in the same landscape that Israel has brought into blossom.

The achievement of Israel is the more remarkable for the fact that politics showed little regard for the logic of terrain and watershed in setting the boundaries of the state. The 7,815 square miles allocated to Israel in the 1948 partition of Palestine make a narrow strip of land along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, roughly 265 miles long and 12 to 70 miles wide. It comprises only part of the Jordan River Valley, the principal watercourse of the region, with its three lakes: Lake Huleh, 230 feet above sea level at the northern end; the Sea of Galilee, nine miles to the south and 680 feet below sea level; and the Dead Sea, 65 miles farther south and 1,290 feet below sea level. More than half of Israel's territory is occupied by true desert or near desert, and the principal agricultural acreage lies on the narrow coastal plain, on the northern uplands and on the western slope of the Jordan Valley from Lake Huleh downstream to 25 miles below the Sea of Galilee, where Israel's boundary comes down to the river. This division of territory and the persistent hostility of Israel's Arab neighbors continue to frustrate programs to realize the full benefits of the water supply to all concerned in a region where water is scarce.

Climatically Israel much resembles California. Rains come in winter, and the summers are long and dry. Moreover, the erratic rainfall varies considerably from one end of the country to the other, from an average of 42 inches in the north, to 26 inches at Jerusalem, to less than two inches at Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba at the foot of the desert of the Negev. Temperatures range to similar extremes over short distances, being cool at high elevations and hot and tropical in the Jordan Valley. In the spring a hot, dry wind, called the khamsin, may blow for days at a time out of the desert to the east, with calamitous effect upon unprotected crops. Harsh as these conditions are, there has been no significant deterioration in climate since Roman times. The same plants still thrive in protected places, and springs recorded in the Bible still bubble from the ground. The "desert" that took over the once-flourishing land was the work of man, not of nature.

Fortunately one geologic feature operates in favor of the conservation of rainfall; the porous limestone of the landscape absorbs a high percentage of the rain and distributes the water widely from the regions of heaviest fall through labyrinthine aquifers underground. The total discharge from springs exceeds the flow of the Jordan: a single great spring near the foothills of Judea gives rise to the Yarkon River. Another important source of water, the heavy summer dew, helps crops to grow in the uplands.

The agricultural restoration of Israel began in the 1880's, with the arrival of the first immigrants brought by the emergent Zionist movement as refugees from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. They were able to buy "useless" marshland on the coastal plain. These marshes had been created by the shoaling of erosion-laden streams and by the damming effect of the inland march of sand dunes. With heroic labor the early settlers succeeded in draining the marshes and farming them successfully. But until the State of Israel was established, the effort was on a "first aid" basis.

When the new government set out to frame a comprehensive program for the development of the country's soil and water resources, it could call upon a number of outstanding authorities among its own citizens: specialists in forestry, horticulture, soil science, plant breeding and civil engineering who had come as refugees from Germany and Central Europe. But with a major portion of its expanding population coming from the Arab countries of North Africa and the Near East, Israel did not have enough experts in the many disciplines needed to establish a modern agriculture in short order. The government therefore was among the first to draw upon the technical assistance offered by the specialized agencies of the United Nations and by the "Point Four" program of the U. S. I had the rewarding experience of sharing in this work as a member of missions that served in Israel under the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U. N. from 195 1 to 1953, consulting in the establishment of a national program of land development and in building up a staff of men to carry it out; and again from 1955 to 1957 helping to build a department of agricultural engineering at Technion, the Israeli institute of technology.

The first order of business, begun in 1951 and completed in 1953, was the taking of a comprehensive inventory of the land. This comprises the 2.38 million acres north of the 60th parallel, about half the territory of Israel, where major agricultural development is possible. One of the most thorough inventories of its kind in the world, it furnished a secure foundation for land use policy and for the immense task of reclamation and water development that has followed. Classification of the inventoried land by end-use shows that, given adequate water supply, about 40 per cent, or a million acres, can be made suitable for general cultivation; about 15 per cent for orchard, vineyard, pasture and other use that will keep a permanent plant cover on the soil; 20 percent for natural pasture without irrigation; and 25 percent for forests, parks and wasteland. Outside the area of detailed survey, in the Negev, an extensive reconnaissance has projected a program for range development and for the cultivation of forage crops in those areas where the scant winter runoff can be diverted or impounded to support irrigation.

A major feature of the land inventory was the classification of the lands according to their relative exposure to erosion by wind and water. In the hands of the Israeli Soil Conservation Service this has served as a blueprint for measures to preserve the best soils and ultimately to reclaim land now unusable. The hazard of erosion increases in geometrical ratio with increase in the gradient of the soil. The first line of defense is directed against the dynamics of the falling raindrop and includes measures of soil management that are also required for sustained crop yields such as the build-up of organic matter to increase the water-holding capacity of the soil and the use of crop litter to absorb the energy and reduce the splash-erosion of the raindrop. Contour plowing and the planting of crops in strips along the contour provide the second line of defense and usually suffice against the hazards of moderate storms. These defenses can be set up by the individual farmer or farm cooperative and are everywhere encouraged through education and demonstration by the Soil Conservation Service. But rains in Israel characteristically come in downpours, in a few heavy storms during the rainy season and in extreme storms every few years. Where such rains overtax the first two lines of defense, more elaborate and costly measures must be designed and laid out by soil-conservation engineers of the Soil Conservation Service. Slopes must be broken by broad base terraces to pick up and slow storm runoff and the terraces must be interconnected by waterways to keep the accumulated water from cutting gullies through the fields. Storm waters are then available for storage in surface ponds and reservoirs or to recharge ground waters. This line of defense must be accurately and adequately engineered, for running waters do not forgive a mistake or oversight in design.

One of the effects of man-induced erosion in the past was the creation of marshes on the narrow coastal plain, notably at Hadera, Kabri and in the Jezreel Valley. Carrying through the work started by the early settlers, Israel has now fully reclaimed these lands, draining and planting them to eucalyptus trees in the lowest spots and to citrus groves and crops on the higher ground.

A more substantial engineering challenge was presented by the marshlands of the Huleh basin at the head of the Jordan Valley. In Roman times and before, this region was fertile and thickly populated, but it had become a dismal swamp and a focus of malarial infection to the country at large. Sediments from the uplands to the north had progressively filled in the northern end of Lake Huleh, thus creating a marsh that was overgrown with papyrus. The marshes have now been drained by widening and deepening the mouth of the lake to bring down its water level and by a system of drainage canals. With the papyrus cleared away, the deep deposit of peat beneath yields richly to cultivation, much as do the delta peat-lands at the head of San Francisco Bay. The Huleh Reclamation Authority estimates that this little Garden of Eden will support a population of 100,000 in an intensive agricultural economy, cultivating vegetables, grapes, fruits, peanuts, grains, sugar cane, rice-even fish (in ponds impounded on the old lake bed) . The yield of fruits and vegetables will soon require the installation of processing and canning plants on the spot. Another gain achieved by the reclamation of this land is the conservation of water; the reduction of the evaporation surface of the lake and surrounding marshes will save enough water to irrigate 17,000 to 25,000 acres of land, depending on the rainfall of the district to which these waters will be delivered. The Huleh Drainage and Irrigation Project is not great in size, but it symbolizes the determination of Israel to make the most of its resources.

The development of water supplies and irrigation constitutes the most significant achievement of the new nation and differentiates its agriculture most sharply from that which prevails in all but a few areas in the surrounding Arab countries. Since the time of Abraham, when "there was famine in the land," agriculture in this region has been at the mercy of the variable winter rainfall. In ancient Palestine irrigation was limited to small areas that could be fed by gravity from perennial springs. These works had long since fallen into disuse, and at the beginning of this century very little of the Holy Land was irrigated. In 10 years the State of Israel has quadrupled the acreage under irrigation, from 72,500 to 325,000 acres. It was this achievement that made possible the absorption of the great influx of immigrants. Irrigation has increased yields per acre from three to six times and more over those achieved by dry farming in the region and has secured dependable yields from year to year.

With most of the water coming from wells, irrigation in Israel is accomplished by sprinkling, rather than by furrow or border ditch. The grid of pumps and pipes delivers the water under pressure but at low rates of flow. Irrigation engineers soon found that sprinkling was best adapted to this mode of delivery and for application of the water to sandy soils and to rougher, stony land unsuited for leveling. The high investment in pumps and piping has been more than offset by the intensive year-round cultivation made possible by irrigation and by the urgent need to settle immigrants in self-supporting activity on the lands. Each year from 25,000 to 30,000 additional acres are being brought under irrigation, and the prospect is that this will continue until the limit of water supply is reached.

Meanwhile extensive field research is devoted to achieving the most efficient use of water. In the northern Negev, for example, it has been found that about six inches of irrigation water, applied just before the winter rains to soak the soil to its water-holding capacity down to a depth of about four feet, will make up the equivalent of 20 inches of rainfall, sufficient for winter grain. In many soils irrigation raises a serious drainage problem. Evaporation from the soil and transpiration by crops in the "consumptive" use of the water leave behind the salts it carries in solution. After a few years the accumulation of salts may reach toxic proportions. Certain crops, such as sugar beets, take up some salts and may be planted in rotation to reduce this accumulation. But whatever the crop, drainage must be provided in time to leach away the salts, and the chemical composition of the soil must be kept under surveillance.

To bring much of the land under irrigation and cultivation has required strenuous repair of the damage don e by centuries of erosion. The slopes in stony soils are typically covered by an "erosion pavement" made up of stones too heavy to be moved by rain splash and by the sheet flow of the storm runoff that carried away the topsoil. In some parts of the country, farmers have raked these stones from the fields and piled them into great heaps. ''''here erosion has exposed the rock or gullied the deep soils beyond plowing, the land has been put to some lower use, such as rough pasture or woodlot. In many parts of the highlands modern farmers have been able to take advantage of the soil-conservation works of the ancient Phoenicians. My own investigations indicate that the Phoenicians, 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, were the first people in the Middle East to clear and cultivate mountain slopes under rainfall agriculture and so were the first to encounter soil erosion. They were also the first to control soil erosion by using the principle of the contour and by building stone walls to convert a slope into a series of level benches. Most of these ancient terraces had been allowed to fall in ruins. Today they are being reconstructed and redesigned. Since the terraces are narrow and so suited only to hand labor, the practice is to collect the stones from old terrace walls and to pile them into ridges spaced more widely apart on the contour, creating terraces with gentle gradients for cultivation by tractor-drawn farm implements. Under sprinkler irrigation the new terraces are proving to be favorable sites for vineyards and orchards.

Over the large stretches of the country that are beyond such reclamation and are too dry for forests, the effort is to develop the land for pasture. Throughout the Near and Middle East and North Africa the land has been overgrazed for more than 1,000 years. What sheep will not eat, goats will, and what the goats leave, camels will graze. By the time these hardy animals have ranged over the land through the long, hot, rainless summer, there is little plant cover left to protect the soil from the winter rains. But if one may judge by the relict species of forage grasses and plants that survive in rocky places and thorn thickets beyond the reach of goats and camels, it may be surmised that this lan d was once a pastoral paradise. The prompt return of a good cover of grasses and herbs after the goats were removed from the land by the Israeli Government in 1948 confirms this appraisal. The Soil Conservation Service has since been reseeding the range with native plants and with species imported from the U. S. and South Africa. In addition, certain woody bushes and low trees are being planted to hold the soil and furnish browse for livestock; the rich beans of the hardy carob tree, for example, yield as much feed as an equal planting of barley. Measures to divert and spread the storm waters over the pastures are further increasing the yield. Herds of beef and dairy cattle are now beginning to multiply on the restored range.

Early in the Jewish immigration to Israel the planting of trees came to be a symbol of faith in the future. Afforestation now plays a central role in the control of erosion, in reclamation of stony hills and in sheltering orchards and garden plots from the winds, whether from the sea or the desert. Some 250 million trees, both native and imported species selected by the Israeli Forest Experiment Station, are to be planted in the next 10 years. The growing of stock in the nurseries and the planting of trees on uncultivated hillsides, on roadsides, in shelter belts and on sand dunes provides interim employment for new immigrants until they become. established. Already the new stands are yielding timber, poles and fuel products-valuable commodities in a deforested land.

The land inventory has served to protect the best agricultural lands from being engulfed by the growing cities and towns of Israel. Along the coast, for example, the communities have been encouraged to expand their boundaries into the sand dunes rather than into surrounding cultivable land. The dunes comprise 10 per cent of the coastal land and; under the drag of the prevailing westerly winds, are overwhelming good land, orchards and even houses. Experiments are under way to hold the shifting dunes by stabilizing the sand surface and by aggregating sand grains into crumb structures. This is accomplished by plantings of hardy shrubs and sand grasses, and of such fibrous-rooted plants as alfalfa, with water supplied to some tracts by sewage effluent and partially rectified sewage water. The rapid growth of the plants where this has been tried converts the sand in a few years into a stable soil-like material suited to the planting of trees and even some crops. But the full reclamation of the dunes to agricultural use is still in the research stage.

Ultimately the expansion of agriculture is limited by the availability of water. The Israeli Water Planning Agency is seeking to double the 1956 water supply by 1966, giving the country a total of 14.5 million acre feet (an acre foot is 12 inches of water per acre) per year. A central feature of the plan derives from a survey that I conducted in 1938 and 1939 for the U. S. Department of Agriculture and from the proposal, growing out of that survey, of a Jordan Valley Authority to achieve the fullest development of the surface and underground waters of the valley for the entire original Mandate under the League of Nations, including what is now the Kingdom of Jordan as well as Israel. That proposal called for the development of ground waters and diversion of the upper Jordan waters within Israel to the dry lands in the south and for the diversion of the waters of the Yarmuk River to the eastern side of the Jordan Valley for irrigation of a promising subtropical region in Transjordan. In order to replace the flow of these rivers into the Dead Sea, salt water was to be brought in from the Mediterranean Sea through canals and tunnels to drop through two sets of hydropower stations nearly 1,300 feet below sea level to the Dead Sea. This salt water would not only produce electric power but also would maintain the level of the Dead Sea for the extraction of the minerals and chemicals that are there in fabulous amounts. The plan was declared feasible by an international consulting board of engineers. All parts of the plan that do not require the collaboration of the adjoining Arab states are now being carried out by the Israeli Government. The prestressed-concrete sections of the main 108-inch pipeline that will carry upper Jordan water down as far as the Negev are now being fabricated and set in place in a great trench, and the tunnels to carry it through intervening hills are under construction.

Beyond this major undertaking the country is conserving for use and reuse such minor flows of water as are represented by the sewage of its cities and the runoff of intermittent streams along the coast. In the southern Negev, where the annual rainfall is less than six inches, the Soil Conservation Service is adopting the methods of ancient Nabataeans to impound the waters of flash floods for the irrigation of forage crops.

Prospects for the future have recently been brightened by progress in the desalting of sea water. A new method developed in the laboratories of the Government is about to be tested in two pilot plants, each with an output of 250,000 gallons per day. Success in this undertaking would be a major victory not only for Israel but also for all the other arid-land countries of the world.

On the anvil of adversity the State and people of Israel have been hammering out solutions to problems that other nations must sooner or later face up to. There are no more continents left to explore or to exploit. The best lands of the earth are occupied and in use. All of them, to a greater or lesser extent, need the same measures of reclamation and conservation that have succeeded so well in Israel. The frontiers of today are the lands under our feet.

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