This article celebrates the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, June 17, 2015.
Can deserts be turned back into arable land? In recent history, some of the world’s deserts supported vegetation. Julius Caesar was greeted in North Africa by a landscape of cypress and cedar trees, and the Sudanese Sahara once supported lush vegetation and permanent freshwater lakes. For a Norwegian company, the Sahara Forest Project, it is possible for green space to be reintroduced in the desert. Their solution uses what we have enough of, like deserts, saltwater and CO2, to produce what we need more of: sustainably produced food, freshwater and energy.
Today is the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, part of the United Nations Decade for Deserts and the Fight against Desertification (2010-2020). Desertification is the degradation of dryland ecosystems by human activities and climate change. The livelihoods of over a billion people are threatened by its advance.
This year’s focus is on sustainable and secure food systems; food production needs to be supported and increased in order to meet the needs of our rising global population. By 2050, approximately 9.3 billion people will be sharing the planet, but we are degrading the land faster than it can recover.  12 million hectares of land are lost annually to drought and desertification. We have already degraded 2 billion hectares of land, and 52% of all agricultural land is at least moderately degraded. Innovation and investment will be needed to meeting the world’s growing demands in a sustainable manner.
The Sahara Forest Project is taking an integrated approach to this challenge. Recognizing that the challenges of water scarcity, climate change, desertification and the need for increased food production are closely intertwined, they believe that “the solution for one sector should not come at the expense of another.” Like how waste in biological systems is used as a resource for other organisms, the project aims for an optimized ecosystem. Reduced cost is an added benefit of this interconnectedness.
The project has three core components: saltwater-cooled greenhouses, concentrated solar power, and technologies for desert revegetation. A concentrated solar power plant and photovoltaic solar panels cool the facility and power its evaporative desalination system, which produces distilled water to irrigate plants in and around the greenhouses. The evaporation of seawater increases the humidity, providing ideal conditions for year-round cultivation of high-value crops, such as cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, with yields significantly higher than typical Qatar greenhouses and competitive with UK production.
The water that it too saline for the greenhouse is piped to evaporative hedges throughout the site. They provide evaporative cooling and humidity, sheltering and providing excellent conditions for outdoor vegetation. The hedges also further concentrate the salt water, allowing 90% of the freshwater to be removed, in contrast to typical desalination plants, which extract less than 50%. The plants grown in these areas create a foothold to push back against desertification.
In addition, depending on the needs of the region, there are technology extensions that can be added to the facility, making use of the available technology and by-products. Salt evaporation ponds on the property would create a commercial product, and ensure that the high saline brine is not returned to the sea, where its addition could significantly disrupt fragile coastal ecosystems, or allowed to feed into the groundwater. Waste CO2 can be used to boost the growth of crops in the greenhouses and also for algae farming, as algae ponds require 2kg of CO2 for every kg of algae that is produced. Some other extensions include traditional desalination, mariculture, bioenergy, livestock farming, and the commercial cultivation of halophytes, plants that can tolerate or thrive in salty growing conditions.
Ambitious and Full of Potential
In June 2014, an agreement was signed to establish a Launch Station in Jordan, with $1.9 million in funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and the Environment, the EU, the Grief Foundation and other philanthropic sources. It will include saltwater-cooled greenhouses, solar power facilities, salt ponds, research facilities, and outdoor vegetation areas. The project has grown from its introduction in 2009 at the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen. The pilot testing facility was built in Qatar in 2012, and it has since exceeded expectations. The next step is a full-scale centre in Aqaba, Jordan.
Within a 4000 hectare facility in Northern Africa, the Sahara Forest Project would yield enough solar energy to power the facility and export 324 GWh per year. The greenhouses could yield 190 000 tons of tomatoes and melons per year. Outdoors, there would be 30 000 tons of fodder crops per year and 1500 hectares of free-ranging revegetation, with an algae fuel cultivation of 7 500 tons per year. It would employ up to 20 000 and support close to 100 000. This is one of many possible scenarios and combinations.
While the project is highly ambitious, and the potential results may not be seen for many years, their vision and ingenuity are turning this dream into a reality. To learn more, visit the Sahara Forest Project’s website, watch a video about the project here, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.