Oasis or Mirage? An Ambitious Model for Sustainable Desert Agriculture

By 2050, an estimated 9.3 billion people will share the planet, putting even more strain on fresh water supplies, food production systems and the electric grid.

At the same time, desertification and shrinking forests are accelerating as a result of climate change.

The Sahara Forest Project, an ambitious venture backed by companies from Qatar and Norway, hopes to address both concerns.

The organization just finished its first pilot installation of a system that uses solar technologies to create fresh water, grow crops, generate electricity, and even grow trees for re-vegetation efforts in arid climates.

The idea is to offer a model that can scale up around the world, easing water supply and food production challenges faced by communities in dry and desert climates.

Here’s part of their mission statement:

"In the same way that the extractive use of resources has contributed to the loss of natural vegetation, the Sahara Forest Project proposes to use restorative practices to establish vegetation in arid areas and reverse the trend of desertification. This process of restorative growth will be catalyzed by combining already existing and proven environmental technologies, such as the evaporation of saltwater to create cooling and distilled fresh water (i.e. in a saltwater cooled greenhouse) and solar thermal energy technologies. The technological combination in The Sahara Forest Project is designed to utilize what we have enough of to produce what we need more of, using deserts, saltwater and CO2 to produce food, freshwater and energy."

Readily available technologies are being used in the Qatar pilot, which spans about 2.5 acres.

Sahara Forest

The facility runs off traditional solar PV arrays, while concentrated solar is used to superheat steam that’s piped through a series of on-site greenhouses for climate control.

Seawater figures heavily in the system design. As it flows through the greenhouse, it is mixed with hot desert air, which both cools and humidifies the environment, creating optimal growing conditions.

Outside the greenhouses, the seawater is used in evaporators that create humidity for sheltered trees, local vegetation, crops and livestock feed, and bioenergy feedstocks such as algae naturally adapted to salt water. Evaporation pools at the end of the system collect the salt for other potential uses.

"Our message is that is possible to design solutions that are good for the environment, good for social development and that have long-term economic sustainability," says Joakim Hague, CEO of the Sahara Forest Project.

Some question parts of the plan, particularly the focus on re-vegetation. "Trying to grow trees in the Sahara desert is not the most appropriate approach,” Patrick Gonzalez, a forest ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, told National Geographic when the plant was announced in 2010. "I can imagine that this scheme and type of technology in limited cases might work in certain areas like Dubai, where they’re used to making palm-shaped islands and 160-story-tall buildings." 

But the idea is attracting supporters in the Middle East. The organization is planning another site in Jordan that would use seawater from The Red Sea and Dead Sea.

Read more about the project:

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