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Life in Israel's Negev desert
Life in Israel's Negev desert
Maurizio Molinari

YOTVATA — There are mud huts to block out the heat, solar micro panels for cooking, bio-gas production from waste, and wet mattresses to grow vegetables and flowers in the desert. This is the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Yotvata, the most torrid and depopulated area in Israel's Negev desert, where a community of scientists and researchers are relentlessly seeking solutions to problems that beset the inhabitants of the planet's poorest countries.

A three-hour drive from Tel Aviv, this is a scientific frontier where Israel is using high-tech and human ingenuity to find solutions to the planet's food security needs amid severe environmental challenges. The Israeli pavilion at Milan's Expo 2015 will be a window into this laboratory. Tali Adini, a researcher from the nearby kibbutz of Ketura, takes us to a village of mud huts that, from the outside, resembles many of those in the remote areas of Africa and Asia.

"We wanted to re-create the original environment, one that needs help and is not connected to any kind of network: electricity, water or telephone," Adini explains, showing how each hut has been internally transformed to a welcoming place, thanks to technology.

The mud huts are comprised of plastic bags containing fibers that can't be penetrated by excessive temperatures. Once inside a hut, you can see an electric oven in the center that is powered by a micro-solar panel outside. A little further on, a visitor sees that the village uses new techniques that have been developed for life in the desert: facilities for recycling organic waste into biological gases, the cultivation of seeds that are able to flower even in salty soil, development of desert grasses into materials for biofuel production.

In the kibbutz of Lotan, the Center for Creative Biology grapples with the construction of similar huts and technologies. Just to the north is the Hatzeva research station, where Noa Zer accompanies us to the greenhouses where more than 40% of Israel's agricultural exports are produced. As far as the eye can see, there are fields of fruit, vegetables and flowers, where even the most diverse can grow "thanks to the human ability to invent solutions," Zer says. He points out the wet mattresses, which are strategically placed in several directions "to allow the temperate air to circulate" via fans that take advantage of the desert air.

Teaching the Third World

Only 3,000 people live at the Arava — out of more than 8 million Israelis — and they are mostly scientists, researchers and high-tech pioneers, together with their families, who choose to engage with the adverse nature here. "There aren't many of us here," says Yaakov, who immigrated from Philadelphia more than 30 years ago. "But when we meet by chance in a field in the heat, then friendships that last are born."

It's not surprising that halfway between Hatzeva and Yotvata is the Keren Kayemet Le-Israel — the national Jewish fund that has taken care of the development of nature in Israel since the birth of the state — where there is an agricultural school that has welcomed hundreds of students from the Third World. When we arrived, there were four classes, each with pupils from Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia and South Sudan. The national flags hang outside the doors to indicate the students' countries of origin.

The young people, almost all of them in their twenties, race to tell us about their experiences. "I came here without knowing anything about Israel," says Nuri, from Burma. "And I discovered that I could help my village to better manage the water in the fields."

For the Indonesians, there's an additional difficulty: Jakarta has no diplomatic relations with Israel. The students tell us of their long route to obtain visas, expressing their hopes of "being able to repeat the miracles of life we see here in the desert every day in our own villages," says one 26-year-old student.

The aim of the Arava Institute is to transform agriculture into a high-tech bridge to the Third World, just like the successful recent project of Furrows in the Desert, which introduced agriculture to the village of north Turkana, Kenya. "Our students are all amazing," says professor Moti Harari.

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