A Hot Idea: Turning Deserts Into Forests

Every once in awhile, I like to devote this space to a way-out-there “green” idea that’s so mad it just might turn out to be a truly disruptive innovation.

That’s what I thought when I heard that the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) will be receiving $5.3 million in funding to build a test facility in Qatar. The facility is designed to “show the potential to grow crops in the desert with only the use of salt water and renewable energy,” according to an announcement from the project’s sponsoring organization, the Bellona Foundation. Bellona is an environmental organization based in Norway. The Sahara Forest Project is a Norwegian private limited liability company (LLC).

Drawing of SFP test facility

Credit: Sahara Forest Project

The funding, provided by the chemical company Yara International ASA and the Qatari QAFCO fertilizer company, will be used to construct a 10,000-square-meter test facility at the QAFCO plant near Doha, Qatar. The Sahara Forest Project expects the facility to be operational by December 2012. It will house “a unique combination of salt water greenhouses, concentrated solar power and solar cells, algae cultivation ponds and salt drying facilities,” Bellona’s announcement states. In 2011, the foundation announced an agreement for a similar project in Jordan.

Yara’s announcement about the Qatar project says:

The Sahara Forest Project (SFP) is about creating re-vegetation and green jobs through profitable production of food, water, clean energy, and biomass in desert areas by combining proven environmental technologies, using seawater, greenhouses, solar energy and a supply of CO2 and fertilizer…

The idea is that the project paves the way for commercialization of this green technology for large-scale implementation, with a vision of sustainably producing energy, food and fresh water, not only for Qatar, but for tomorrow’s world population…

In a world facing water scarcity and needing sustainable food production and clean energy, one of the greatest challenges is finding ways to close the gap between future demands and available resources. The Sahara Forest Project is all about rethinking resource use, moving from extractive to sustainable and restorative use.

In the Sahara Project’s overview of the Qatar test facility, Launching the Sahara Forest Project, the company provides details about the technologies they will be demonstrating.

Central to the project is a greenhouse design that uses saltwater instead of precious freshwater to create cool, humid growing conditions for vegetables. The project’s greenhouses will be designed to produce freshwater themselves with desalination units powered by parabolic solar collectors. The greenhouses will be able to produce vegetable crops year-round, despite their harsh desert location.

Drawing of evaporative hedges

Credit: Sahara Forest Project

One of the purposes of the Sahara Forest Project is to develop technological solutions to reverse desertification. According to the project overview:

The Sahara Forest Project proposes to establish groups of interconnected economic activities in different low lying desert areas around the world. The simple core of the concept is an infrastructure for bringing saltwater inland. The saltwater is used to condition the desert air in a greenhouse to create ideal growing conditions for the crops inside. Evaporation of the saltwater at the greenhouse entrance cools and humidifies the dry desert air, creating conditions in the greenhouse that significantly reduce the irrigation requirements of the high value plants grown inside.

The project also plans to conduct research into saltwater algae biofuel production.

Combating Desertification

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) defines desertification as “the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas.” The organization says desertification “is caused primarily by human activities and climatic variations.”

A report on desertification from the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) says that such harmful desertification occurs on vulnerable drylands, which constitute 41 percent of the earth’s land area and are home to more than 2 billion people. The Assessment says that 10 percent to 20 percent of drylands are degraded now. The most vulnerable drylands are the sub-Saharan and Central Asian.

Map showing world's drylands

The people who live in drylands tend to rely on ecosystem services for economic survival — deriving production of crops, livestock, dairy, fuelwood, and construction materials from the land, all of which are constrained by water availability. Climatic variations can place strains on these resources, resulting in a dangerous cycle, says the report:

When the resilience of a dryland ecosystem is impaired and it does not return to the expected levels of service supply after the stress is removed, a downward spiral of degradation — in other words, desertification — may occur. Many mechanisms linked to this phenomenon have been documented for drylands: excessive loss of soil, change in vegetation composition and reduction in vegetative cover, deterioration of water quality and reduction in available quantity, and changes in the regional climate system.

According to the MA report, desertification and its economic effects can best be dealt with through “proactive management approaches.” The same measures used in other conditions to prevent soil degradation can serve in drylands. The report recommends developing a “culture of prevention” both at the policy level and among the populations of people living on drylands. “Sustainable land use can address human activities such as overgrazing, overexploitation of plants, trampling of soils, and unsustainable irrigation practices that exacerbate dryland vulnerability.” Better water management, including harvesting, storage, and conservation, can help sustain populations while preventing degradation of drylands. Protecting and increasing vegetative cover can help protect soil from wind and water erosion.

Schematic showing drylands development pathways

Was the Sahara Green in the Past?

The name of the Sahara Forest Project reminded me that I’ve been hearing for a long time that the Sahara desert was once a paradise. Is that really so?

Interestingly, climate reconstructions have indicated that the Sahara desert has gone through three “green episodes” during the past 120,000 years, according to Science Daily (see The Green Sahara, A Desert In Bloom). Marine sediment cores have been used to study the particles transported from the Sahara by wind and rivers and deposited in the ocean. More river-transported particles and fewer wind-transported particles during any given geological period indicate a greater vegetation cover.

NASA satellite photo of Africa

Credit: NASA

Dr. Rik Tjallingii from Kiel University in Germany says that variability in the earth’s rotational angle adjusts the effects of incoming solar radiation, causing climate change over long time scales. During the three periods Tjallingii studied, these changes increased moisture production and moved the African monsoon farther north, bringing rains to the Sahara. The geological evidence correlates with computer climate simulations, which predict the same changes in vegetation cover indicated by the sediment cores. During these “Green Sahara” or “Wet Sahara” periods, the region was “almost completely covered with extensive grasslands, lakes and ponds,” says Science Daily.

The most recent Green Sahara period was supposed to have been from about 7500 BCE to 3000 BCE, sometimes called the Neolithic Subpluvial or the Holocene Wet Phase. In The African Experience: From Olduvai Gorge to the 21st century, Roland Oliver writes that during the subpluvial, Northern Africa enjoyed a savanna-type environment:

[In] the highlands of the central Sahara beyond the Libyan desert… in the great massifs of the Tibesti and the Hoggar, the mountaintops, today bare rock, were covered at this period with forests of oak and walnut, lime, alder and elm. The lower slopes, together with those of the supporting bastions — the Tassili and the Acacus to the north, Ennedi and Air to the south — carried olive, juniper and Aleppo pine. In the valleys, perennially flowing rivers teemed with fish and were bordered by seed-bearing grasslands.

Can the technological solutions proposed by the Sahara Forest Project really help drylands peoples in places like the Sahara combat desertification? Maybe so. Otherwise, we might have to wait for the next subpluvial, which could take a while.

Drawing showing a large Sahara Forest-type facility

Credit: Sahara Forest Project



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