Countries in the Arab world are harnessing technology to do something quite incredible: they’re transforming the desert into farmland. Two Norwegian companies – Desert Control and the Sahara Forest Project – show how we can take some of the harshest environments on Earth and make it suitable for the growing of crops.
This has huge implications for many of the world’s most pressing issues. Desertification is becoming an increasingly vexing and worrying problem. Climate change, influenced by human activity, is causing relatively dry regions to become even more arid, resulting in the loss of bodies of water, vegetation, and wildlife.
As well as climate change, other causes of desertification include deforestation, farming practices, urbanisation, mining, drilling, and natural disasters (which are themselves influenced by climate change).
The effects of desertification are severe. It makes farming next to impossible, which increases the risk of hunger for people living in the local area. When areas start to become more arid, people will move away, leading to overcrowding and overpopulation in the area they move into.
The planet has lost a third of its arable land in past 40 years. Turning the desert into farmland is certainly one way to reverse this trend and help to feed an exponentially growing global population.
The transformation of desert into farmland
Norwegian scientist Kristian Morten Olesen, who founded the startup Desert Control, has patented a process that mixes very tiny particles of clay with water, which then bind to sand particles, making the desert fertile. He says:
The treatment gives sand particles a clay coating which completely changes their physical properties and allows them to bind with water.
This process doesn’t involve any chemical agents. We can change any poor-quality sandy soils into high-yield agricultural land in just seven hours.
Olesen’s Liquid Nanoclay (LNC) was trialled in the deserts of UAE. Two areas were planted with tomatoes, aubergines, and okra. Only one area was treated with LNC. Faisal Mohammed Al Shimmari, a local farmer, said:
I am amazed to see the success of LNC. It just saved consumption of water by more than 50%, it means now I can double the green cover with the same water.
The Sahara Forest Project (SFP), a Norwegian company, has managed to grow vegetables in the desert of Qatar at a similar rate to European farms. The Tunisian and Jordanian governments have also given the company permission to build facilities in the desert to grow crops. There are various challenges to overcome, however. Professor Heribert Hirt notes:
The problems are not dissimilar to doing agriculture on Mars. (Among) the biggest problems in the entire region of Northern Africa and the Arab countries are the dust and sand storms that constantly cover up solar panels and get into all machinery that is exposed.
He emphasises, though, that SFP is “worth the effort and will teach us more how to transform these vast regions of unused land back into agriculture.” It’s worth highlighting how Hirt draws a comparison between these efforts and the possibility of terraforming Mars. If these projects can successfully and reliably transform the desert into fertile land, then this adds hope to the goal of making the red planet hospitable to human life.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a freelance writer who is particularly interested in space exploration, sustainability, tech, and agriculture.