Notice the Sunshine in the Desert
Inter Press Service, 5 June 2006 - The Sahara desert alone can capture enough solar energy to supply all the world's electricity needs and more, a United Nations report says.
"Deserts are a great expanse of land, and have great potential to supply much, much more," Shafaqat Kakakhel, deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) told IPS at the launch of a report on the deserts to mark Environment Day.
"The report says that one solar park which would sit within the Sahara could supply all the energy needs of the world," he said. "Of course there are many, many complications. But the potential is there."
The report points to the bright side of deserts but while warning also of new dangers that deserts face. Declining water levels is the biggest among them.
"There is no question that the water levels in the underwater reservoir in many deserts are dropping," Kakakhel said. "But it's not just the water levels in the underground reservoirs, it's the rivers that come into deserts that are being diverted and used elsewhere, it's the melting glaciers which are providing a little bit of water now but when they disappear it's like turning the tap off. So really water is being turned off on all sides."
The report makes a clear distinction between deserts and desertification. "We mustn't confuse desertification with arid lands that are being degraded, with the desert ecosystem which is an agile and unique ecosystem in itself which supports a substantial diversity in plants and species," Kakakhel said. "They are two separate issues."
Prof. Andrew Warren, professor of geography at the University College London, one of the key authors of the report said that in the popular mind there is more concern over what is called desertification than with deserts. And desertification is seen usually as sand dunes advancing into cities.
"But that is not that big a problem," Warren told IPS. "The far bigger issue is what is happening within the deserts themselves, they are vast and very sensitive ecosystems, and they are home to 500 million people. It is not necessarily deserts spreading. It is things getting worse within the desert."
And the danger from factors such as declining water levels is already upon us, he said. "Pakistan is under a serious water threat. The biggest lake in the Colarado is drier than it has ever been. So it is happening now. And it probably will get worse."
Some of this degradation is man-made, says the UNEP report on the global deserts outlook. Deserts are increasingly being used as military training grounds and as prisons and refugee holding stations.
These intrusions import many people into deserts, generate considerable income and help upgrade infrastructure but have large environment footprints particularly with respect to water," the report says. "In an insecure and competitive world, this kind of investment will continue, even grow."
By 2050 population growth and inefficient water use will move some countries "beyond the thresholds of water stress," the report says. Some of the countries in danger are Chad, Iraq, Niger and Syria.
In some areas renewable water supplies are threatened severely by 2025. These sources include the Gariep river in southern Africa, the Rio Grande and Colarado rivers in North America, the Tigris and Euphrates in southwestern Asia and the Amu Darya and Indus rivers in central Asia.
"Better management of water supplies will be the key challenge for the future of deserts but could, if successful, be a beacon of hope and good practice for other water-short parts of the globe," the report says.
The report highlights other bright spots in the desert apart from the scope for trapping solar energy.
The sunlight and temperature regimes have surprisingly led to an increase in shrimp and fish farms in deserts in locations like Arizona in the United States to the Negev desert in Israel, the report says. "Such ventures offer new and potentially environment-friendly livelihoods for local people and businesses.
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