The Sahara Forest Project has an intriguing premise. Start with things that we have in abundance – deserts, saltwater and CO2, and work with them to produce what we lack – food, fresh water and energy. It’s an idea I’ve read about before and wondered if it would ever come to anything, but this week a press release arrived in my inbox. The first Sahara Forest Project station has just launched in Aqaba, Jordan, and is now producing vegetables in one of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes.
The plan is to tap the desert heat to evaporate seawater, and use the process to maintain a consistent growing temperature inside a seawater-cooled greenhouse. The evaporated seawater then condenses as fresh water to irrigate the crops. There’s also enough water left over to grow desert plants and hedges outside, beginning the processes of restoring soil and reversing desertification.
It would be impossibly expensive to re-vegetate the desert on its own, but when combined with a commercial farming operation, it becomes economically viable. The project creates jobs, produces food, and should eventually begin to change the desert landscape itself – a truly restorative business model.
The project began with a pilot in Qatar and moved to Jordan recently, where there are plans for a 490 acre farm. (One of the reasons for doing it in Aqaba is that it is a low-lying desert, which dramatically reduces the costs of pumping seawater to the site.) Next year a farm is due to open in Tunisia, and then it will actually be in the Sahara. Will it ever live up to the ambitious of its name, and deliver a Saharan forest? Not any time soon, but as these sorts of projects scale up and the costs come down, they could make a real contribution to feeding the world in decades to come. There’s no competition for land in the desert, and there’s no shortage of sea water.