Silica Valley

The Arava is a region in the far south of Israel and denotes the valley stretching from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea at Eilat. The valley is actually a section of the Great Rift Valley which runs from Mozambique and continues north into Syria. Our recent trip to Israel included a wonderful few days in the Arava on Kibbutz Ketura, with our friends Susan Silverman, Yossi Abramowitz and family. The border with Jordan runs along the bottom of the kibbutz fields, and it is good to know that now the border is open, you can drive for just a couple of hours into Jordan to see Petra (of, dare I say it, Indiana Jones fame).

My brother lived in the Arava for many years, on Kibbutz Lotan, and I spent a few months on neighboring Kibbutz Yahel after high school. At that time, like most of the kibbutzim in the area, one of the main economic drivers was winter vegetable agriculture: growing tomatoes, watermelons, onions and more.

The Arava really is desert receiving about 350 days of direct sunshine each year, and only a couple of inches of rain in the remaining two or three weeks. Winter night time temperatures can drop to around freezing, and summer surface temperatures can be around 120 degrees Fahrenheit (around 50 degrees centigrade). I remember visiting my brother in the late 1980's and him proudly showing me a kibbutz grown tomato with both frost damage and sun/heat damage.

Over the last 15 years or so, the kibbutzim in the region have started to realize that growing vegetables, which needs lots of water, is not a great use of resources in the desert. Instead, they are switching to increased growth of date palms (much more sensible desert agriculture), and appropriate industry.

Given the title "Silica Valley", and my own career in information technology, I would love to tell you that this region is becoming a new Silicon Valley. However, silica is not silicon, and my understanding is that regular sand is not a great raw material for silicon (I am prepared to be corrected). There are certainly some small businesses taking advantage of tele-commuting, and providing high-tech services to Israel and the world. The main trend, however, is that the residents of the Arava are developing an ecological, environmental and green technology cluster. This includes eco-tourism, environmental studies centers and very high tech industries based on harnessing the climate (not fighting it). The Arava is on a main route to and from Africa for migratory birds from Europe and Asia, and so it attracts birdwatchers. At least two kibbutzim (Lotan and Ketura) house environmental institutes, and Ketura has a company, AlgaTech, harnessing some of that solar energy for rapid growth of growing very high value algae.

My current favorite is the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, on Kibbutz Ketura. Students from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and (in the past) Egypt study and work on regional environmental issues together. It is a model for peaceful co-existence based on the absolute reality that the environmental issues of water, warming and weather know no borders. The Hazon Arava Institute Israel bike ride is a key fundraiser for the Institute, and the 2007 ride from Jerusalem to Eilat starts on May 1st. Several of my friends are riding this year, and I wish them all congratulations and happy riding.

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