Dying for Water

Discovery of ancient lake in Darfur yields promise of new wells, peace

THE discovery of a new groundwater source in war-ravaged Darfur through the use of satellite imagery and radar sensing technology could unlock a significant water supply for this region of Sudan next year when wells are drilled.

The Sudanese government's plan, called "1,000 Wells for Darfur," aims to create new groundwater resources to help establish peace and economic security in the region. The initiative, announced July 11, resulted from a meeting between Sudan President Omar Al Bashir and geologist Farouk El-Baz, director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing.

El-Baz, a veteran of NASA's Apollo lunar exploration program, pioneered the study of desert landscapes using satellite images, mainly to locate new groundwater sources. At the Center for Remote Sensing, established by El-Baz in 1986, researchers use remote sensing and geographic information systems techniques to study archaeology, geography, and geology.

Satellite radar technology that reveals former underground water pathways down to 10 meters below the Earth's surface detected an ancient lake site in Darfur that once occupied 30,750 km3, about the size of Lake Erie. This water source would have contained approximately 2,530 km3 of water when full.

The lake's shorelines (at 573 meters above sea level) were identified by El-Baz and Eman Ghoneim, a research professor, at the Center for Remote Sensing. Radar data from space unveiled the lake's features, now covered by wind-blown sand.

"This was one of a series of studies in the eastern part of North Africa," El-Baz told Water & Wastewater News. "It is all based on satellite image interpretation."

In a press release from Boston University, the geologist said finding water at the site is likely, despite how many years have passed since the lake was full.

"One thing is certain—much of the lake's water would have seeped through the sandstone substrate to accumulate as groundwater," El-Baz stated.

The same technology helped El-Baz discover a new groundwater source in Egypt. In that case, El-Baz identified the East Uweinat basin in southwestern Egypt where the groundwater rises to 25 meters below the surface. More than 500 wells were drilled to irrigate up to 150,000 acres of highly successful agricultural farms where wheat and other essential crops are grown.

Enacting the plan
The next step for "1,000 Wells for Darfur" is identification of the best locations for wells. "We plan to select the most appropriate sites through detailed analysis of space image data, geophysical surveys by local experts to confirm satellite image interpretations, and on-theground field data collection to determine the needs of the local communities," said El-Baz.

The government of Sudan, with the aid of international agencies, requires these activities as part of the development plans for future sustainable economic development in the region.

The project gained immediate support from the government of Egypt as Mahmoud Abu Zeid, minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, pledged to drill the initial 20 wells. The United Nations mission in Sudan also plans to drill several wells for use by its peacekeeping forces.

Any person or organization can contribute to the humanitarian well-drilling project. Those who provide $10 million or drill 10 wells will have their names on those wells, according to El-Baz.

"Access to fresh water is essential for refugee survival, will help the peace process, and provides the necessary resources for the muchneeded economic development in Darfur," El- Baz commented in the university release.

"I'm sure it's going to be tens of millions of dollars" to drill 1,000 wells, El-Baz told Water & Wastewater News. "You won't see the results of this until maybe the beginning of next year."

Drought and war
Decades of water scarcity in Darfur contributed to the region's civil warfare, fueling tensions between ethnic African tribesmen and nomadic Arabs. The conflict began in 2003 when African tribesmen took up arms, complaining of discrimination by the Arab-led Khartoum government.

During the past four years, more than 200,000 have died in the violence, according to estimates from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The civil war resulted in a regional humanitarian crisis with limited food supplies for refugees who fled to neighboring Chad and Central African Republic.

Eldon Griffiths, an international authority on environmental affairs, spoke in May at a luncheon in Baltimore, Md., on the topic of Darfur and the potential for even more such conflicts in the future related to water scarcity issues.

"What impressed me most of all," Griffiths said, "is the fact that the first of the water wars is already being fought. There will be more."

This sobering prediction by Griffiths came during a talk titled "The World's Future Water: Wars, Price, and Cleanup" at an exclusive luncheon sponsored by Regenesis. The event was held in conjunction with the Ninth International Symposium on In-Situ and On-Site Bioremediation.

Griffiths said water wars, like those fought in the American West and in Central Asia, will be an inevitable impact of climate change. He said the Darfur conflict highlights the importance of taking action to combat global warming.

"We now know the oceans are rising, greenhouses gases are helping to warm the land, and the deserts are advancing. We're not certain of the extent to which human activity is bringing it about, but we now know enough to recognize that we've got to do something about it," he added.

Dealing with world overpopulation and deploying innovative technologies must be part of the response, Griffiths said, explaining that "in the case of water, it's going to have to be some combination of nuclear power and desalination, especially in the hot areas of the globe."

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Debbie Bolles is managing editor of Water & Wastewater News.