How To Use Seawater To Grow Food In The Desert
Inside the greenhouse, tiny leaves of wild rocket, iceberg lettuce and pak choi poke through the dirt, each as small as a fingernail. Planters hold calla lilies and dragonfruit, sea samphire and gerberas. Bright strawberries dot buttery green leaves. And there are row after row of vines, draped over wires, leaves as big as dinner plates: snack cucumbers and fragrant basil and nine varieties of tomatoes.
“My basil’s a bit straggly,” head grower Blaise Jowett says, apologetically. “But I’m keeping them for pesto.”
He shouldn’t be too apologetic. Outside of the greenhouse, a camel grazes. Pale pink sand extends to the rocky mountains in the distance. Only the hardiest tufts of green thrust up through the ground. There is no water. There are no trees.
This spot in the Jordanian desert, just a kilometre from the Israeli border and 15km inland of the Red Sea, may be one of the most surprising places on Earth to start a farm. It’s also one that, in some ways, makes perfect sense.
By 2050, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has said, food production needs to be increased by 50% to match the projected increase in population. That won’t be easy. “The challenge is to produce this amount of food within the boundaries of this planet, with a limited number of hectares of arable land – while knowing that a lot of the land and the soil is getting degraded,” says FAO emergency and rehabilitation officer Sylvie Wabbes-Candotti.
We’re facing other global challenges, too. Climate change, for one. And in many countries, including Jordan, a lack of water. And to make matters thornier, each of these issues impacts on the other. Currently, food production consumes about 70% of global freshwater consumption and emits 25% of greenhouse gases. Simply upping how much food we’re producing – without changing how it’s done – will make emissions and water usage worse. Meanwhile, as climate change and water shortages get more severe, the more difficult it will be to produce food with the same methods we use today.
“You can’t see climate change as an isolated challenge; it is connected to water and food production,” says Joakim Hauge, president of the Sahara Forest Project Foundation, the organisation behind the Wadi Araba project. “You need to progress those issues together with tackling climate change. Our response to that was, well, let’s take what we have enough of to produce what we need more of.”
One resource Jordan needs more of is water. The second most water-poor nation in the world, it has less than 150 cubic meters of water per person, per year. (The US has more than 9,000). Part of the problem is that the country is three-quarters desert. Another problem is agriculture. Farming sucks up half of Jordan’s water supply, but contributes only 3% to the country’s GDP. (Read more about one surprising solution Jordan is using to solve its water crisis).
What Jordan does have is sunshine – and plenty of it. On average, the country gets an average of between 5 and 7kWh of solar energy per square meter. That's enough to power 14 traditional light bulbs for eight hours, 14 washing machines to each do a load of laundry or, perhaps most relevant for Jordan, one air conditioner for four hours. It’s one reason why the US government’s International Trade Administration calls renewable energy one of Jordan’s best-prospect industries.
Jordan also has seawater… sort of. Though mostly landlocked, with its access to the Mediterranean separated by Israel and Lebanon, 26km of the country borders the Red Sea. That isn’t much coastline – but with the approach being taken by the Sahara Forest Project, that may be all it needs.
The project’s concept is elegant in its simplicity: Jordan’s solar energy desalinates the seawater, the desalinated water grows the crops (and the run-off cools the greenhouse) and the crops help plough carbon from the atmosphere back into the soil. Three tentpole challenges, tackled at once.
And along with being a sustainable use of resources, the project could bring another benefit. Once scaled up and commercialised – and especially if its methods are adopted by other farms in the country – it could give Jordan another list of valuable exports. Currently, the country imports 98% of its food.
“Jordan is dependent on food imports,” says Wabbes-Candotti, who works across the region but isn’t involved with the Sahara project. “Water is really the shortage. If you cannot depend on the rain, but have a reliable water supply with this desalinated water, then if you have adequate funding, and master the techniques… you can go produce food and even become an exporter of food.”
No-one doubts there will be a number of challenges ahead.
But even now, the team has already started tackling the difficulties of just how you use desalinated water to grow crops in the inhospitable desert.