27 July 2007

The Northern Darfur "Mega-Lake"

Primary Sources:
20 September 2004: Christian Science Monitor
A Frenchman who can see water beneath the Sahara
20 July 2005: BBC
Radar finds water for Sudan refugees
11 April 2007: Boston University
Space data unveils evidence of ancient mega-lake in northern Darfur
11 July 2007: Boston University
"1,000 Wells for Darfur" iniative launched
17 July 2007: Boston.com
Boston University scientists find underground lake in Darfur
18 July 2007: BBC
Water find 'may end Darfur war'
20 July 2007: BBC
Ancient Darfur lake 'is dried up'
21 July 2007: UPI
Could Darfur lake escalate violence?
22 July 2007: New York Times
A Godsend for Darfur, or a Curse?
25 July 2007: Nature (subscription required)
v. 448, pp. 394-395, doi:10.1038/448394a
Additional sources include Wikipedia and a few specific links given below.

News and expertise from two camps in remote sensing of groundwater have come together recently over the topic of a potential find in the contentious Darfur region of western Sudan. The BBC announced on 18 July that scientists from Boston University had found an ancient "mega-lake" beneath the Sudanese desert, identified primarily with subsurface topographic datasets using satellite-based ground-penetrating radar. The ancient lake, a potential source of fossil water to residents and refugees in the region, was described by Dr. Farouk El-Baz, director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing, as "the size of Lake Erie in North America, the 10th largest lake in the world."

Before doing my homework like a good little scientist, I forwarded the 18 July BBC article to Thomas Barnett, following some correspondence with him on my interests in his work and the possibility for exploring the natural resource drivers (esp. water) in the kinds of Gap development that he describes so eloquently and pushes so strongly. In response, I received a citation on his blog as well as a discussion on the role of water in the bigger picture that development strategists look toward in their efforts, especially in as troubled a region as central Africa. Basically, in Darfur, Mr. Barnett wrote that "it's Arab Muslim cowboys and largely black African farmers. Desertification in the north pushes Arabs southward, and so now the hope is that more water resources in the south will calm the violence...It's mostly about controlling the land. More water makes the land more sustainable in terms of population, but it also makes it more valuable, and therefore more worth fighting over." Doing my homework would have revealed much more of the story here.

Well, the speculative value of that real estate dropped again when, on 20 July, the BBC reported a response from Dr. Alain Gachet, a French scientist who specializes in water resource discovery and development in sub-Saharan Africa and Director of Radar Technologies France. His claim was that the ancient lake had dried up thousand of years ago. Now, here we have a story to look at. Dr. Gachet's method, according to descriptions in the press, can tell whether groundwater is present at a location, but not how much. The method employed by the BU scientists can apparently identify the size of an potential aquifer, but not whether it still contains water. Get these two methods together, and maybe there's something to be said for the science of geohydrological prospecting by remote sensing. In the meantime...

On the side of the BU scientists, their discovery had actually been announced in a University press release several months earlier, and was followed up with a fund-raising initiative called "1,000 Wells for Darfur," also announced by Boston University just a few days before the Associated Press (via Boston.com, above) and then the BBC picked up the story. My favorite part (speaking facetiously) in this initiative: “Access to fresh water is essential for refugee survival, will help the peace process, and provides the necessary resources for the much needed economic development in Darfur...Any person, organization or county can contribute to this humanitarian effort. Those who provide $10 million or drill 10 wells will have their names on the wells forever.” Well, Dr. El-Baz almost had it, but then he mentioned sponsorship of individual wells...

According to Aquablog, the announcements by BU scientists may have been premature and may have "oversold" the find, especially to the government in Khartoum, but the United Nations has nevertheless made a tentative offer to assume leadership of the humanitarian initiative based on further investigation of the science and results.

News stories and analyses have since focused on the potential for escalated violence in the Darfur region specifically because of the groundwater find. In the meantime, Dr. Gachet seems to rest on his reputation for positive groundwater finds in neighboring areas of Africa. It had already been reported in association with the Darfur mega-lake that similar groundwater finds by Dr. El-Baz and his group were explored and exploited in southern Egypt, another area to which Sudanese refugees have fled in the past several years. According to the UPI analysis listed above, the Sudanese government will play the biggest role in how the new find in Darfur is explored and exploited, and that may lead to further strife if settlement in the region, and use of the new-found water resources, are dictated in an exclusive manner.

Will the refugees, the Black African farmers, be allowed to return to their land and use the resources beneath, or will the Arab Muslim cowboys maintain territorial control and thus exclusive resource control? If possession is nine-tenths of the law, and if the Islamic government in Khartoum is unlikely to challenge existing territorial claims despite the conditions under which those claims were made (drought and desertification), then the farmers will remain expatriates indefinitely, and it is up to neighboring countries to help support an immigrant Sudanese population. In Chad, with support in groundwater resources development from Dr. Gachet and the French, maybe the farmers will be better off, but there is a larger conflict in sub-Saharan Africa into the middle of which many of these refugees have fallen.

Those fleeing Darfur are, essentially, refugees from the human impacts of environmental change. Note that I didn’t say "global warming" there. Sure, regional warming from persistent climate conditions can lead to meteorological drought, and when combined with unsustainable land-use practices can result in hydrological and eventually economic drought. Over time, if the land is not "reclaimed," desertification will result, and in this case the vast Sahara Desert moves relentlessly southward through the Sudan. The New York Times analysis listed above explores this issue quite eloquently, noting the onset of drought and famine in Sudan in the mid-1980's and the worsening of the "ecological crisis" from then. Simplistically, a recent UN report and statements by the UN Secretary General attribute the humanitarian crisis in Darfur almost entirely to a degraded environment resulting from global warming.

The complexity of feedback in the human/climate/ecology system is certainly difficult to define, and scientists have been attempting to refine their estimates of global warming impacts for years. However, it is the human influence, in the form of institutional organization, that is most often left undefined and without blame. The NY Times analysis helps bring this back into perspective: "...an environmental catastrophe cannot become a violent cataclysm without a powerful human hand to guide it in that direction." The post-colonial Sudanese government must reform its agricultural and water resource management practices in order to reverse the damage and to create a sustainable base for peace, development, and eventually interaction with the world at large. This will require a hard look at the social stratification, the separation between urban "economic and political elite" and rural "poor" and the exploitation and abuse of the latter, that is predominant in Sudanese culture, according to the NY Times analysis.

The essence of the groundwater question in northern Darfur is that the burden of proof now falls on the BU scientists who claim discovery of the "Northern Darfur Mega-Lake" and must demonstrate, with UN help on the "1,000 Wells" initiative, the presence of exploitable water resources. This is the very point, along with several questions, raised on Aquablog and espoused this week in the Nature article listed above. Dr. Gachet suggests that, though this "lake" is likely a dry formation by now, other resources are almost certainly present and available in the Darfur region.

The UN certainly strives to serve its purpose as a humanitarian relief organization, but it cannot protect and defend the land and water rights of farmers and cowboys, especially within the domain of an established Sudanese government. Just one well will make a difference in the debate, and dozens of exploratory wells will reinforce the science on one side or the other. If positive finds result, hundreds of wells will make a difference to the locals, and the investment and infrastructure will follow.

The questions remain as to who will fund the resource exploration and exploitation, how government(s) will rise to the challenge of infrastructure establishment and widespread reformation of land-use practices in Sudan (and much of sub-Saharan Africa), and who will benefit most from the process of ecological recovery and sustainable development.

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