Desertification Confab Chair Links Land Degradation to Virus Risk
Israeli university’s virtual gathering draws record registration
Viruses are more likely to jump to people from animals as more and more of their natural habitats are destroyed, according to the Israeli host of the seventh Drylands, Deserts and Desertification conference, which began on Monday.
The connection between disease and desertification is on the agenda, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) Prof. Shimon Rachmilevitch, the conference chairperson, told The Media Line.
“We know that desertification and degradation of land impact natural ecosystems. And if they are degraded, all kinds of animals leave their natural habitats and move to places with more humans, leading to humans being exposed to new and different organisms such as COVID-19,” Rachmilevitch said.
We know that desertification and degradation of land impact natural ecosystems. And if they are degraded, all kinds of animals leave their natural habitats and move to places with more humans, leading to humans being exposed to new and different organisms such as COVID-19
Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, kicked off the conference with a pre-recorded message on this year’s topic: “Feeding the Drylands: Challenges in a Changing Environment.” The COVID-19 crisis, he stated, is an opportunity to return to a new normal that doesn’t exploit natural resources and drive further land degradation.
The conference, which has a record number of participants, is being held virtually this year because of the pandemic. So far, BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research has organized all seven conferences on desertification.
The event, which runs from Monday until Wednesday, is sponsored by the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and is affiliated with the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
Nearly 2,000 people registered from about 103 countries, including Israel’s archenemy, Iran. The more than 160 speakers include representatives from Israel’s new ally, the United Arab Emirates, Rachmilevitch said.
According to the UN, drylands comprise more than 40% of the world’s land – and that figure is growing every year.
For Israelis and citizens of other countries with deserts, learning to adapt to desertification is important, Dr. Noa Avriel-Avni, director of the Mitzpe Ramon branch of the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, told The Media Line.
“As someone who was born and raised in the desert, I really like the desert, so I’m not going to combat it,” Avriel-Avni said.
As someone who was born and raised in the desert, I really like the desert, so I’m not going to combat it
She will be speaking in Wednesday’s session on the present and future resilience of desert societies and plans to challenge the idea that desert societies are permanently at risk of collapsing.
BGU desert agriculture researchers and students (Dani Machlis/BGU)
The conference will also cover food technology and desert technology. In addition to scientific and policy sessions, there will be virtual tours that include Israeli water and desalination plants.
Kelem Gashu, a BGU doctoral student from Ethiopia, presented on Monday his research article “Temperature shift between vineyards modulates berry phenology and primary metabolism in a varietal collection of wine grapevines.” The journal Frontiers in Plant Science provisionally accepted his article last month.
“I’m working on wine varieties in a desert environment because in a desert environment, we have a problem of berries shriveling due to dehydration,” Gashu told The Media Line.
The researchers were trying to find which variety grows best in the Negev desert, Gashu said.
Ben-Gurion University Ph.D. student Kelem Gashu (Courtesy)
Farmers can use the findings to modify the plants to protect the varietal grapes from extreme radiation in order to ensure high-quality wine.
“Now that the temperature is increasing, more places than ever are becoming unfavorable for agricultural production,” Gashu said.
Now that the temperature is increasing, more places than ever are becoming unfavorable for agricultural production
“We cannot run away from this truth,” he continued. “We need to find a solution on how to survive in a desert environment, and we need solutions to give us good wine and good quality in extreme temperatures due to the climate. Temperature is increasing from time to time, so it’s important.”