It’s time for the Middle East to work together on climate change, afforestation

 
Opinion piece by Nave Shachar, KKL-JNF Managing Director of the Israeli Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, as originally published on Al Arabiya News.

 
 
Global warming, world wars, poverty, hunger and economic polarization have made us think about what the world will look like in 2030. While governments across the Middle East have taken great strides in combating climate change, it’s time for the region to come together for the benefit of all countries and companies involved.
 
As part of this attempt to create a different reality in 2030, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz announced the launch of the Middle East Green Initiative in March 2021, in accordance with the Saudi Vision 2030 strategic memorandum. This initiative includes the implementation of several ambitious programs that will reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent in the region, along with planting 50 billion trees in what will be the world’s biggest afforestation project.
 
His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, confirmed the UAE's full cooperation with Saudi Arabia on this initiative. Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Sudan and Iraq have expressed their readiness to take part in the initiative.
 
These initiatives fall firmly in line with the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, first outlined six years ago, which include combating climate change, protecting oceans and forests, eliminating poverty and hunger, accessing clean water, improving health and education, gender equality and promoting peace. The UN firmly believes that the achievement of these goals is intrinsically related to the integration of the private sector into the campaign. Companies and start-ups have joined the race for impact, and an entire industry of ventures and investment funds has sprung up.
 
Although the Green Middle East initiative and its compatriots are turning points for regional and global sustainable development, they are not new to this region nor to its leaders.
 
In the 1970s, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, embarked on a “greening‟ the desert program. Shaikh Zayed developed projects to level dunes and sand hills and to cover surface areas with mud. He set up green belts around farms to protect them against the wind and to stabilize the soil. Additionally, he worked to protect cities against sandstorms and restrict the humidity ratio by ensuring that forests were planted around city borders. In 1946, Sheikh Zayed launched a pioneering water resources management system that was centered in Al Ain. By using both the traditional aflaj, underground canal irrigation systems, along with modern technology, he raised productivity in existing agricultural lands and introduced new varieties of produce in farmlands.
 
Additional examples of afforestation technology development can also be found in this region. CAFU, a Dubai-incorporated company that has made huge strides towards its goal of becoming carbon neutral, initiated the Ghaf Tree Seed Project which plans to plant a million Ghaf seeds in the UAE desert to combat climate change.
 
Can Israel play a part in this process? Over the past few decades, Israel has played a key role internationally in dry-land forestry and combating desertification thanks to an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach to afforestation, watershed management and soil conservation in arid and semi-arid regions.
 
Extensive research and development processes have enabled KKL-JNF (a sustainable development NGO and Israel’s Forest Service and Land Development Authority) to implement forest management practices for its natural and planted forests. To date, KKL-JNF has planted over 245 million trees throughout Israel.
 
KKL-JNF has become an international expert in afforestation in arid and semi-arid regions, and regularly participates in international forums and joint forestry projects. The necessary valuable expertise was acquired through 70 years of KKL-JNF's investment in research and development. This research enabled the development of tree improvement programs for drought and pest resistance, watershed management related to landscape level and rainwater harvesting techniques, soil conservation methods and integrated biological pest control.
 
Israel has invested extensively in sustainable development and in almost every aspect has unique examples of technological development and techniques. One of the most fascinating is the development of desert agriculture. In the dry lands of the Negev Desert, researchers at Ramat HaNegev Desert Agriculture Center have cultivated a desert called Terfezia Leonis fungus, a popular delicacy throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Researchers successfully decoded the intricate relationship between the fungus and its host plant, the Desert Trap. Last year, prices for these truffles reached $120 per pound.
 
Another example is the success that Israeli desert wineries have enjoyed globally, thanks to the quality of the wine and unique techniques for growing grapes in arid and semi-arid regions. In addition, Israeli researchers are working on rediscovering the secrets of ancient wines. The strain of grapes used for these wines are showing remarkable resilience to drought in desert regions. Due to the need for combatting global desertification, the demand for this strain is growing even among European growers.
 
With the many positive developments emerging from the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement, joint initiatives between the countries partner to this agreement have yet to even begin realizing their full potential.
 
In order to accelerate the benefits of all the signees, we should ascribe to the vision that the boundaries of the social, environmental and economic triangle have blurred. It’s worth paying attention to the social and environmental problems we face, as they are fertile ground for lucrative business opportunities. Governments and the social sector have realized that relying on people's goodwill to volunteer does not work in the long term. The significant players in the arena - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel – have internalized this principle and each country has set internal goals to direct their economies towards investment in accordance with this trend. The time has come to set regional goals together.
 
Promoting afforestation is not just about quantity, it is also about quality. While the initial motivation of Israel's vast afforestation program that began nearly a century ago was to green a desolate landscape, today’s afforestation efforts aim to improve the landscape and preserve open space, increase biodiversity, provide leisure and recreation for the population, and promote ecosystem services. Whereas initial efforts focused on planting large expanses of fast-growing conifers, today’s forest management is based on a more ecologically oriented approach, with greater emphasis on woodland biodiversity and heterogeneity, along with more sustainable methods of planting, rehabilitation, and management.
 
A significant future milestone is the upcoming Expo 2020 Dubai mega-event, which will be launched on October 1, 2021. Now is the time to join forces in order to harness the momentum necessary for making significant change and promoting cooperation. Taking advantage of groundbreaking technological innovations and directing funds to impact investments in this field is essential to overcome the obstacles on the way to achieving our common goals.
 
One way would be to create a joint regional hub for collaboration in diverse regional sustainable development issues such as combating desertification, renewable energy, food security, water and solutions for climate crisis related issues. This hub will attract sovereign and private funds that would be invested in these innovative technologies and promote projects whose positive impact on the region will be beneficial both for local residents and for the environment.

 
This opinion piece was originally published in the Al-Arabiya English-language newsite on June 6, 2021. Read the original article here.