01 Dec, 2012 |
Sahara Forest project starts to cultivate the desert
First crops harvested by new method of using sea water to grow vegetables
Sahara Forest Project turning vision into reality

Qatar is pioneering a new way of using seawater to irrigate crops and grow food in desert lands.

The $5 million pilot launched in Qatar last year works on the simple basis of using what the area has enough of to produce what it needs more of. It uses a network of greenhouses where the distillation from sea water, heated by concentrated solar power, provides growing conditions for a range of vegetables.

Founders of The Sahara Forest Project say their approach to agriculture could be the solution for growing crops in dry regions. The project proposes to establish groups of interconnected economic activities in low lying desert areas around the world.

The combination of technologies, which are all readily available, creates humid conditions in which to grow crops, produces freshwater for irrigation or drinking and “greens” desert lands. It also safely manages brine and harvests useful compounds from the resulting salt.

After ten months of the pilot in Qatar, the first batch of cucumbers has just been harvested. On display at the Sustainability Expo are baskets of other produce grown in the Qatar desert using conventional irrigation systems, including aubergines, courgettes and green peppers.

Joakim Hauge, the project’s chief executive officer, described the concept to an audience at a COP18/CMP8 side event. He said: “The Sahara Forest Project is a set of environmental technologies for sustainably producing food, energy and water in desert regions.” These include using sea water to cool greenhouses and enable year-round cultivation.

Mr Hauge said he believed that integrated solutions were needed to solve interconnecting challenges. He quoted Einstein who said: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we had when we created them.”

The Qatar pilot project was launched in partnership with Yara International ASA and Qafco. It currently covers a space of 10,000sq m, including three large greenhouses.

Kjetil Stake, managing director of The Sahara Forest Project, said: “The question people ask us is why are we in Qatar when we come from Norway?”

He said there were three reasons. The first is that it has been acknowledged that Qatar needs to find a way to provide its own food. It also has a climate that works with the needs of the project and there is good co-operation with the Government and the partners.

He said: “Our ambition is not just to be a pilot. We want to go large scale and in order for that you need investors to go with you and put up funding. However we were very clear that we wanted to do this on a step by step basis and first we want to learn from this pilot.”