Farming the Desert

As recently chronicled in the NY Times, Global food shortages have placed the Middle East and North Africa in a dilemma: grow more crops to feed expanding population or preserve already limited supplies of water. For decades, nations in this region have drained aquifers, desalinated sea water and even diverted the Nile in order to transform the arid desert into lush, agricultural landscapes.


In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia made itself self-sufficient with regard to food, and even positioned itself as a global exporter. Egypt had its own struggling desert oasis with the Toshka farm, which represented 500,000 acres of potential farmland eked from the desert. Egypt’s president, Mubarak, puts the ambitions of cultivating this farmland on par with the ambitions of constructing the Pyramids.

However, as these agricultural oases became increasingly costly and water intensive, countries in the Middle East began importing their food, sometimes up to 90 percent or more of their staples. But with current global food shortages and rising costs, nations are turning anew to expensive schemes to maintain their food supply.

Population in this region has quadrupled since 1950, to 364 million and is predicted to reach 600 million by 2050. By then, already scare water resources will be cut in half.

map food farming

Oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia have begun looking for farmland in fertile but politically volatile nations such as Pakistan, with the goal of growing crops to be shipped home, in the form of agricultural surrogacy. For years there have been international discussions regarding international water sovereignty. It will be interesting to see if such discussions eventually extend to agricultural lands.

Meanwhile, economists suggest that rather than seeking food self-sufficiency, countries should grow crops for which they have a competitive advantage like produce or flowers, which do not require much water and can be exported for top dollar. Israel has been using drip irrigation for decades, for precise, engineered and water-efficient agricultural production.

aerial Libya water reservoir

Supporting these ambitious projects to farm the desert requires an equally ambitious infrastructure of water delivery such as the Great Man-made River (GMR), a network of pipes that supplies water from the Sahara Desert in Libya from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System fossil aquifer. Some sources cite it as the largest engineering project ever undertaken. It may well be the largest underground network of pipes in the world. It consists of more than 1300 wells, the majority more than 500 m deep, and supplies 6,500,000 m³ of freshwater per day to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirt and elsewhere.

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