The Negev Highlands Protected Area: Studying ecological development under 2,500 years of human settlement

By Arnon Karnieli

Figure 1 Ancient terracing for capturing runoff and soil in order to facilitate desert agriculture. Credit Silvia Giamberini.

The Negev Highlands (“Har HaNegev”) are located in the heart of the Negev Desert and cover an area of 445 km2.  The protected area includes a national park, the UNESCO World Heritage Incense Route, and several national nature reserves established for their unique wildlife, flora, fauna, water resources, geological features, and archeological value. The area also contains two urban settlements, several single-family agricultural farms, Bedouin settlements, and military bases and training areas.

Figure 2 The Bedouin society is a unique social group that leaves in sparse villages. Credit Arnon Karnieli

The Negev is important for both ecological conservation and as a place for future economic and residential development. Currently, the challenge is to support the development while protecting ecological integrity and biodiversity. Since the area has been populated and used intensively for at least the past 2,500 years, the study of past human-environment interactions can provide insights to guide future development.  For example, the Nabataeans, who established the city of Avdat in 300 B.C.E. as a station on the Incense Route, also built wide-scale terracing for capturing runoff and soil in order to facilitate desert agriculture.

These landscape modifications endure through the present day, affecting ecosystem flows, productivity and species diversity.  Some of these practices find current analogies in the grazing and rain-fed agriculture of the Bedouin communities or in the irrigated agriculture of single-family farms.

In ECOPOTENTIAL, multiple methodologies are employed to study human-environment interactions in the protected area, including remote sensing, biodiversity surveys, and social research. The integration of these various strands of research will support policy-relevant directives for future development and conservation.

Since the Negev is currently the largest unsettled land of the country, policy makers consider it as a preferred target for future population solutions due to demographic growth and residential development. For this reason, it is essential to investigate the past and present interface between the fragile nature and the human-induced changes.  Such a study will help the planners to minimize degradation of the dryland ecosystem within the protected area.

Ohana-Levi N., Paz-Kagan T., Panov N., Peeters A., Tsoar A., Karnieli A. (2018). Time series analysis of vegetation-cover response to environmental factors and residential development in a dryland region. GIScience & Remote Sensing, 2018; doi: 10.1080/15481603.2018.1519093.

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