International Arid Lands Consortium Funds Science and Cooperation

March 1, 2004
For the past 12 years, the main goal of the International Arid Lands Consortium (IALC) has been to bring together scientists from the United States and the Middle East to work on issues concerning development, management, and restoration or reclamation of arid and semiarid land worldwide. But every project IALC funds has an interesting side effect—building bridges for peace.
BeforeAfter“This is a complex consortium that does some very good things with not a lot of money. It’s promoting collaborations that probably would not occur, and it’s also promoting some very good science,” explains Jeff Dawson, University of Illinois professor with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.Many IALC research and demonstration projects focus on issues concerning erosion control—from Bedouin grazing studies in Israel to no-till projects in South Dakota. The scientists involved in the organization say American and foreign researchers are learning from each other and developing some solutions that also can be applied to similar problems in places like Africa and Afghanistan. The consortium was authorized by US Congress and funded by several departments of the US government. It also receives money and other resources, such as lab access from the universities and international organizations involved, and has funded more than 100 projects since 1993, distributing between $1 million and $2 million a year. The organization began its planning in 1991.Kennith Foster, president of IALC and professor and director of the Office of Arid Land Studies at the University of Arizona, explains that this organization provides a framework for cooperation and a place for scientists from Israel, Jordan, and Egypt to sit around the same table—something they could not do today in their own countries. The framework of the organization also strongly encourages the scientists to work together by requiring that grant requests meet certain criteria dependent on collaboration. Foster says this organization is just one example of how American universities provide a great deal of informal ambassadorship. Another example is the way scientists from throughout the world study each year at American institutions of higher education to earn their undergraduate and graduate degrees. Most of these students return to their native countries and become leaders in both academic and political fields. Some of these very same researchers now are working on projects for IALC.Everyone in the group speaks English and steers clear of political discussions, even when two people from opposing countries sit at the same table. “Our most fervent discussions are about who has the best football or basketball teams. They tend to align themselves with their US university,” Foster says, adding that the members of the consortium from Israel, Egypt, and Jordan have become very good friends and are all on a first-name basis. The meetings are rotated around, but for security reasons there have been no meetings in Israel or Jordan for the past three years, although scientists from those countries still are able to fly to the US to meet with each other. “The problems there have not deterred the collaborative research that is ongoing,” Foster reports.“Patchiness” and Sustainable Livestock Grazing
One example of international collaboration for IALC is an ongoing demonstration project in the Israeli desert that concerns sustainable livestock grazing practices. The project has many useful applications, including help for the Bedouin tribes—once nomadic and now being encouraged to establish permanent settlements in Israel. Dawson explains that the Bedouins’ nomadic livestock practices tend to cause overgrazing, which leads to soil erosion and destruction. The IALC demonstration project will help Bedouins improve their grazing practices to sustain forage and livestock productivity near their settlements. Researchers from the Middle East and other arid and semiarid regions of the world visit this demonstration site to learn about environmentally sustainable livestock production.
BeforeAfterDawson explains that the goal is to figure out the optimal “patchiness” to allow for water infiltration without contributing to erosion. Some grazing and human use of the land is necessary because low disturbance by animals or humans leads to the forming of a desert crust. The crust “cements” soil together and prevents erosion, but it can be too much of a good thing when it becomes impervious to water and contributes to runoff and erosion problems downstream. “We’re coming to a general consensus that neither overdisturbance nor lack of disturbance is the ideal situation. It’s actually a trick of balancing the interaction among man, the existing life, and the existing climate,” Dawson says. “The soil is a dynamic entity. You don’t want it all to be erosion-proof because it causes problems downstream.”When animals walk through a crusted area, they make holes for germinating, which leads to patches of greenery and soil development. Researchers also have studied various kinds of plants and animals that help create savannas in the desert and promote soil development and ecological diversity. Beneficial to scientists, farmers, and government officials around the world, this research is also helpful to American scientists who can see what happens in countries that have been overgrazed for 2,000 years—rather than for 200 years—and who possibly can find out how to avoid the same issues in arid parts of the US.Dawson is interested in how the grazing patterns change because of political situations and how this impacts the land. “I’ve seen some amazing aerial photographs that show the border between Egypt and Israel. When Israel occupied this part of the Sinai, grazing levels went way down. This whole landscape turned blue because this crust reformed,” he says. “The crust in the Negev reforms pretty quickly. That shows dramatically—from a space perspective—what happens with a low level of disturbance.” According to Dawson, moving the Bedouins into one area instead of allowing them to remain nomadic led to rapid spreading of the crust, which tends to encourage big washouts during the rainy season. “What we’re aiming for is the right level of human-managed disturbance,” Dawson says. Future IALC research in this area might look at methods for ecosystem restoration, the effects of exotic plans and animal invaders, and impacts of recreation, mining, military activities, and pollution on arid and semiarid lands. IALC also has not yet been able to support studies about cultural-heritage preservation, including archeological sites and pastoral lifestyles and traditions. Scientists involved with the organization hope to tackle these topics in the future.No-Till Farming
A major IALC project concerned with soil erosion is the no-till project conducted by South Dakota State University. Fred Cholick, dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at South Dakota State, says the no-till research has already generated practical applications being put to use in the US, Israel, and Jordan. The project looked at the decrease in erosion and the increase in soil health from not tilling. Comparing land that has been tilled for 200 years in South Dakota with land that has been tilled for 2,000 years in the Middle East has been one of the interesting parts of the project for Cholick.
Farmers are more interested in the increase in production that has resulted from the project. For example, in central South Dakota, soybean production has increased by more than 900% since farmers stopped tilling their land and began adding more organic matter to the soil and changing their crop-rotation plans. Cholick says a significant portion of South Dakota farms are now no-till, and the farmers find they also are saving on fuel and equipment costs because they no longer are tilling.Environmentalists and fishermen are excited about the positive impact of this soil buildup on erosion. “We’ve done rain simulation experiments, where we simulate a rainfall of 5 inches in 20 minutes. We had no erosion runoff,” Cholick says. The next step in the project is to find out how to make the natural systems even more productive and increase water-use and crop efficiency.Cholick, whose first job after finishing his Ph.D. was with the US Agency for International Development in Turkey, North Africa, and South America, says farming and food production is an ideal subject for scientists to collaborate around because food, food systems, and natural resources are subjects that impact every country on every continent. “The global world we live in today is extremely small. Global understanding of each other is the foundation for peace,” he says.Time-Tested Knowledge Partnering With New Technology
This combination of scientific discovery and political side effects also motivated the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a nongovernmental organization responsible for afforestation and land management in Israel, to be one of the founding partners of IALC. This 101-year-old organization is known by the American Jewish community as “the folks who plant trees in Israel.” They still plant trees today—in part because trees help prevent desertification by halting soil erosion—but they actually have a much broader mission, including many environmental projects.
BeforeAfterIsraeli environmental scientist Itshack Moshe is JNF’s soil and water conservation coordinator for its forestry department. In addition to his work in Israel, he has consulted on water and soil projects in Chile, Paraguay, Mexico, Turkey, and Africa. He describes his work on IALC projects as combining ancient knowledge with modern technology. “We are doing what our forefathers did 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.” But unlike their forefathers, these modern scientists are sharing what they learn with other countries, including Jordan and Egypt. Scientists from other parts of the world, such as Africa, the former Soviet Union, Australia, and the US, also are coming to Israel to see the demonstration projects and figure out what they can use at home.One unique project that Moshe, formerly a member of the International Erosion Control Association, talks about involves moving animal grazing into the forests to help reduce fire hazards and manage runoff. Another interesting demonstration takes place at the site of ancient farms being maintained for historical reasons rather than for growing. At the same time JNF is preserving the farms, its scientists are managing runoff and decreasing erosion. “One of our main goals is for people to come and see how these things were done 2,000 years ago,” Moshe says. “Generations of farmers lived on these renewable resources. They had floods every year.” But they dealt with that challenge and managed the land.Another Israeli scientist, Omri Bonneh, who is director for the northern region of the Land Development Authority of JNF, says the current partnership with American scientists has its roots in a crisis that occurred about 15 years ago, when Israel experienced a terrible forest-fire season. “We looked to the US Forest Service for assistance, which had [considerable] experience with that issue. From that point, the relationship developed and has covered almost every area of forest and land management,” Bonneh says. “It gave us a unique opportunity to rely on the professional methodology that has been developed in the United States, especially forest management and forest fires.” Both JNF and the Forest Service went on to be two of the founding partners of IALC.“We were happy to discover—although the scales between Israel and the United States are completely different—the problems that we have to deal with are very similar,” Bonneh says. “When you give a solution to a problem in Israel, it can also be applicable to a problem in the United States. Of the good results is the production of techniques that can be used in any other country that deals with the same problems.” The forestry work involves both fire prevention and land rehabilitation, as well as cross-training of foresters. The Forest Service and JNF together have researched invasive species, including plants and insects, range management, and tree improvement, among other topics.This partnership has even allowed Israeli scientists to work with Palestinian researchers, although technically their people are at war. “Sometimes there are political barriers. One of the ways to overcome such barriers is to get down to the professional issues and exchange ideas, views, and knowledge and communicate via the Internet,” Bonneh adds.Rehabilitating Hula Valley
JNF’s environmental work in Israel, which does not all involve IALC, has included wetlands restoration in the Hula Valley in northeastern Israel. Until the 1950s, the valley contained one of the largest and most diverse wetlands in the Middle East. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, JNF drained the papyrus swamps and a lake to reclaim peat lands for agriculture use. Agriculture flourished for 40 years in the valley—but at the expense of growing environmental problems, such as increased nitrate and phosphate pollution from fertilizers flowing into the Sea of Galilee, which provides much of the region’s drinking and irrigation water, and increased peat-soil erosion by wind, subsidence, oxidation, and spontaneous subterranean peat fires. The result was a loss of valuable topsoil and eventual degradation of agricultural lands.
In the 1990s, JNF began rehabilitating the Hula peat lands by creating a new water body on the peat soils, constructing a canal network, and installing a barrier across the valley to prevent nutrient-rich peat waters from flowing into and contaminating the Sea of Galilee. A new phase of the Hula restoration project began in 2002, with the goal of finding an equilibrium among agriculture, ecology, and public use, such as walking and biking trails and bird observation points. JNF also is building a visitor center, which will serve an educational function.Outreach and Other Projects
Among IALC’s other projects are several educational and outreach efforts, including what it calls “Peace Fellowships” that allow students from the US to study in the Middle East and brings students from that region to the US. There are also short courses offered to Middle Eastern scientists, such as a one-year technical course led by a professor at the University of Arizona on “Mitigating Risks to Conservation and Sustainable Use of Water and Other Natural Resources.” The course was taught in Amman, Jordan, and Tel Aviv, Israel, for trainees from Jordan, the Palestinian Environmental Authority, and Israel. It concentrated on water resource management, sustainable agriculture, and climatic study.
Researchers from New Mexico State University and Bar-Ilan University in Israel are in the middle of an IALC study on the role of animals in the persistence of decertified ecosystems. Their work focuses on the impact of rodents and rabbits in helping restore degraded ecosystems. The scientists also are looking at impact on different types of grasses and how cutting back the grasses and shrubs contributes to restoration of the ecosystem. They are doing their investigations in New Mexico but hope to discover how their findings will translate in other similar lands. Another current IALC study looks at using recycled wastewater for irrigation water in semiarid and arid zones, such as the southwestern US and Israel. This study is being led by researchers at the University of Arizona and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Their theory is that using treated wastewater helps nourish the soil by increasing organic matter over the long term. Previous studies have indicated that the concentration of dissolved organic matter in the wastewater plays an important role in the absorption of pesticides in soils; however, the researchers want to find out what the precise role of the organic matter is in this interaction and how exactly they interact.One way IALC fulfills its educational mission is by setting up Web sites to help scientists share information. One such site focuses on management of semiarid watersheds and was completed by the University of Arizona in 2000. The Web site, which can be accessed at, offers in-depth information and a training course in watershed management. The Web site includes a search function, access to research studies data, a library of images, a discussion of Current Issue in watershed management, and links to related resources on the Internet. “Transferring needed technology to arid and semiarid land managers and local landowners will remain a priority of IALC,” report leaders of the organization in a 10-year review of its work, which was published in November 2001 by the US Department of Agriculture. To get a copy of this report, which outlines many more projects than those discussed in this article, call 970/498-1392, e-mail [email protected], or fax 970/498-1396. For more information about the IALC and its work, visit the organization’s Web site,