Saving the Wild Date Palms of the Arava

Wednesday, December 08, 2021 3:22 PM

The date palms that grow around the springs of the central Arava are whithering away. A group of local volunteers are working with KKL-JNF and other environmental organizations to save them.

An operation to save the wild varieties of date palm that grow beside springs in southern Israel’s Arava region has been launched under the auspices of a group of local volunteers partnered by KKL-JNF and other organizations. The palm trees that flourished around springs in the central Arava for thousands of years are now in danger of extinction as these water sources become increasingly polluted and dry up.
“I remember the springs as they used to be, bubbling with water and surrounded by magnificent green palms. Young couples would meet beside them, eat the dates and enjoy the scenery,” recalls 80-year-old Amnon Navon, who was among the founders of Moshav Ein Yahav. “Today it’s saddening to visit them and see how the waters have dried up and the trees have died. The Land of Israel is also known as the Land of the Date Palm, as these trees have been an important part of our heritage from Biblical times until the present day.”
The springs and the wild palm species are of tremendous ecological importance, explains ecologist Dr Oded Keinan, director of the Arava Environmental Science Education Center. “The Arava’s aquifers feed brackish springs whose salinity level varies to the point that almost every one of them constitutes a unique habitat. The date palms play an important role in these habitats: they attract animals, provide shade and shelter and are a biological indicator of the condition of the adjacent spring.”
The spring pollution and reduced water flow gravely damages the entire ecological system, says Dr. Keinan. “Rare local vegetation vanishes from the springs altogether. Oryxes and wild asses are scarcely seen in the area, and migrating songbirds no longer stop over. The ecological system’s natural continuity has been severed, local populations are left isolated, and biological diversity decreases.”
A group of researchers and concerned local residents have mobilized to rescue the springs’ date palms. They have begun to document those that survive, to monitor their condition and irrigate them to keep them alive. At Ein Wiba, adjacent to Ein Yahav, they have managed to restore water flow to the spring, and are now keeping track of local flora and fauna revival.
“This project is tremendously important to both the environment and the community,” says Talila Livshutz, director of community relations in KKL-JNF’s Southern Region. “Apart from its contribution to ecology and science, it plays a vital role in connecting the young generation to nature, the environment and history.”
Although at this stage the date-palm rescue project is being conducted entirely on a voluntary basis, a number of organizations and individuals who appreciate the importance of the initiative have rallied round to help. Among them are KKL-JNF, the Central Arava Regional Council, Central Arava Research and Development, the Nature and Parks Authority and researchers from the University of Haifa and the Volcani Institute. Nor are the scientists and volunteers alone in their important endeavors: a group of eighty young people is helping to monitor the condition of the date palms as part of a school educational project.
Hila Elbaz of Moshav Hatzeva is one of the volunteers actively engaged in rehabilitating the springs and saving the palm trees. “As a farmer who makes a living from palm trees and loves nature, I’m dismayed to see what’s happening to the wild date varieties,” she tells us. “Although this important initiative possesses scientific, agricultural and educational aspects, the most urgent thing is to save the palms. We try to reach as many springs as possible and keep the trees alive.”
Apart from ecological rehabilitation, there are also aspirations to develop some of the springs for tourism purposes and render them accessible to the public. Central Arava Regional Council’s Director of Tourism Merav Amit explains: “In the desert every small pool or watering hole attracts visitors. We hope to develop a few of the ancient springs, taking scrupulous care to conserve the local ecology. The plan includes rehabilitating springs, restoring flow from ground water or nearby reservoirs, and re-establishing natural vegetation.”
Roee Galili is a farmer and archeologist who lives on Moshav Idan in the Arava. “For me the desert is home, and desert archeology has always fascinated me,” he says. “Research we conducted has revealed how very important date palms were in the lives of the Nabateans, the ancient inhabitants of the desert. They used their trunks to build houses and furniture and palm fronds to roof their homes – and, of course, they ate their fruit. In the Central Arava we have found date pits aged 2,300 years old, and we’re conducting morphometric and genetic tests to compare them with wild date varieties in existence today. These tests are very expensive, and we hope to recruit additional bodies to support this fascinating research.”

“A natural place to cultivate dates”

The wild date palms around the springs serve as a form of gene bank that can prevent future damage to agricultural varieties of date. As most commercially-farmed dates are propagated from cuttings or tissue cultures, they display very little genetic variation and are thus highly vulnerable to disease.
For Arava farmers, the date palms are much more than a historic symbol: they are a vital source of income. Date farming has an annual turnover of 140 million NIS and supports around 170 families in local moshavim. The Central Arava produces six thousand tons of dates every year, of which 90% are earmarked for export. This superb fruit can be found and purchased everywhere in the world, from the US, Canada and Europe to Australia and the Far East.
The date plantations of the Central Arava extend over an area of around 9,000 dunam (approx. 2,250 acres).  KKL-JNF played a major role in preparing this land for agricultural use. In recent years, date cultivation in the Arava has been on the increase, due to growing demand for the fruit.
“The Arava is the natural place to cultivate dates,” says Oren Korin, chairman of the Central Arava Agricultural Committee. “Date palms love dryness and heat, both of which are found here in abundance. The brackish water of the Arava likewise suits them very well. All this enables us to produce high-quality fruit that is sweet and moist.”
Korin himself owns a 35-dunam (approx. 8.6 acres) date plantation in Moshav Hatzeva, and he has plenty  of farming anecdotes. “When the dates ripen, that’s the high point of the year for the whole family,” he says. “Harvesting the fruit is a family event, and the children join in. Afterwards we all make our way to the packing house to sort and grade the fruit together.”
KKL-JNF supports research and experimentation into various aspects of date-growing, to provide farmers with vital information that can help them optimize their yields. “Dates are a major crop in the Arava, and so it’s only natural that many of our experiments focus on date-growing,” says Eilon Gadiel, director of the Central Arava Research and Development Center.
By way of example, he describes a number of significant experiments currently underway: one research project is searching for an irrigation regimen that will yield the maximum quantity of top-quality dates from the minimum quantity of water. Another water-related project is examining how yield is affected by increased irrigation during the night hours, while yet another is investigating ways to combat aspergillus (a fungus that attacks dates), for example, by thinning the quantity of fruit on the tree. Another experiment due to be launched soon will compare different methods of fertilization.
“The aim is to provide farmers with an irrigation, fertilization and pest-control protocol for obtaining maximum yields from date palms.” concludes Gadiel.