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Dreaming of a green desert

Farming First - Wed, 5 Feb 2014 13:28 GMT
Author: Pierre Herben, Farming First
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The Sahara Forest Project pilot facility in Qatar is making the desert green (2012). PHOTO/The Sahara Forest Project
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In desert lands, temperatures can reach a searing 50 degrees Celsius and rainfall can be as little as 10 inches (25.4 cm) per year. It would be easy to dismiss these areas as wastelands, lacking the vital ingredients to produce abundant supplies of food, clean energy and employment.

Yet a pilot project in Qatar has demonstrated that, by using a unique combination of innovations and the elements that are available in the desert, growth can be restored, and crops for food, fodder and fuel can flourish.

The Sahara Forest Project concept was launched in 2009, with the aim of ‘greening’ desert areas and creating a sustainable solution to the world’s food and energy demands through a restorative process, rather than an extractive one. 

It is designed to utilise what we have enough of - deserts, saltwater and carbon dioxide (CO₂) - to produce what we need more of: food, water and clean energy.

In 2011, the Sahara Forest Project partnered with Yara International ASA, a global fertiliser company, and the Qatar Fertiliser Company (Qafco), opening its first pilot facility in December 2012. Described as ‘an oasis of green technologies’, the purpose-built facility in Qatar brings together existing and proven environmental technologies, benefiting from the synergies between them. 

USE WHAT YOU HAVE

The Sahara Forest Project aims to establish groups of interconnected economic activities in different low-lying desert areas around the world. The core of the concept is infrastructure for bringing saltwater inland.

Through this infrastructure, the project aims to make electricity generation from concentrated solar power (CSP) more efficient and to operate energy- and water-efficient saltwater-cooled greenhouses, which can then be used for growing high value crops in the desert.

In addition, technologies produce freshwater for irrigation or drinking, safely manage brine, and harvest useful compounds from the resulting salt. They also grow biomass for energy purposes in a way that doesn’t compete with food cultivation, and re-green desert lands. A technology for establishing outside vegetation in arid environments is one of the key components.

Besides commodity outputs of food, energy and salt, the system also provides global climate benefits by sequestering CO2 in the facility’s plants and soils, and by pushing back the accelerating process of desertification through replanting desert areas.

By bringing desert areas into productive use, more carbon can be stored from the atmosphere in plants, roots and soils. Such measures have the potential to be a major tool in limiting the effect of global warming.

It has been estimated that a single Sahara Forest Project facility with 50 MW of concentrated solar power and 50 hectares of seawater greenhouses would annually produce 34,000 tonnes of vegetables, employ over 800 people, export 155 GWh of electricity and sequester more than 8,250 tonnes of CO2.

WHERE NEXT?

The Sahara Forest Project concept and technologies could be implemented successfully in parts of most of the world’s hot deserts. Suitable locations depend on social factors such as political support, access to expertise, geopolitical benefit and local partnerships.

Additionally a number of financial factors must be considered such as availability of funding, manufacturing and construction costs, labour costs, market access, market value and the cost of land.

Technical issues will also determine the viability of a Sarah Forest Project, including the correct temperature and humidity levels. Height above sea level (up to around 200m) and distance from the sea are other important factors, as they have a direct effect on the energy required to pump seawater.

Even if all the conditions are right, Sahara Forest Project facilities will only be truly successful if well integrated with local communities providing opportunities for jobs, produce and knowledge transfer.

Finding a sustainable way to feed the planet while making efficient use of our most precious natural resources is a global priority – and we have the technology and innovation to make it happen. Reclaiming arid lands will be a key factor in this process, and desert lands should not be overlooked.

Pierre Herben is chief technology officer of Yara and a spokesperson for the global agriculture coalition Farming First. He participated in the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture in Abu Dhabi from February 3-5.

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