Can deserts and near-deserts be reclaimed in time to prevent massive starvation in a world threatened by population explosion? Here is a challenging, on-the-spot report from an international conference on this vital subject.
MORE than one third of the earth's land surface is arid or semiarid. These arid lands almost equal the combined areas of the North and South American continents. That is a lot of land! Sand deserts alone — and they are but one type of arid land — cover a total area almost twice the size of the U.S. That, too, is a huge chunk of territory. Some sixty countries — about half of the nations in the world — are affected by aridity. Even in the agriculturally rich continental American states, 32 percent of the land is arid or semiarid. As the food and population time-bomb keeps ticking away, can these arid lands be conquered and made useful to man before it is too late?
Getting the Facts
To bring our readers the answer to this far-reaching question, PLAIN TRUTH editors attended an international conference on "Arid Lands in a Changing World." It was held on the campus of the University of Arizona here in Tucson. Experts from more than thirty countries around the globe, including the Soviet Union, participated in the conference. They presented some 200 papers dedicated to solving a single, common problem: how to use arid lands to provide food and suitable living conditions for an exploding worldwide population. "The whole plan to utilize extensive parts of the arid lands is presented as a possible contribution to the fight against the world hunger problem," said an Israeli participant. An American delegate added hopefully: "These vast, largely uninhabited and underdeveloped areas likely will prove the pressure valve in absorbing an ever-increasing world population. And their cultivation may solve the critical problem of feeding increased billions of future world citizens." But can the earth's sprawling deserts be cultivated on a large scale? Is it possible for the arid lands to fill the growing food gap? And what about new cities, towns and industries in desert areas? Will today's wastelands be the boom areas of the next quarter century? Behind all the visionary statements and the grandiose plans and schemes, what — in true perspective — are the real problems and promises of the earth's arid lands?
Basic Problem — Water
The most basic problem of all is simply a lack of water. All other problems in arid regions in some way relate to this major need. Any hope for the future development of arid lands rests on finding an adequate supply of usable water. One possibility which has received considerable attention is the desalting of seawater. Few people realize that the earth has some 20,000 miles of desert coastline. And "it is well demonstrated that the coastal desert areas provide one of the most desirable regions for human habitation, if the basic amenities of life can be supplied" (Arid Lands in Perspective, p. 121). The key to supplying these basic amenities is primarily water. And being on the coast, what better way could there be to try to solve the water problem than by desalting seawater? But to what stage of development has desalination progressed? The noted authority on deserts, Peveril Meigs, says this: "Some authorities have high hopes set on this system, but it is still experimental. In the present stage of experiment in water desalination there are many slips between the hopes and the results." (All quotes from Meigs are from his article in Arid Lands in Perspective, a book published by the University of Arizona and released during the conference) This is not to say that desalination is not already useful in a limited way. It may come as a surprise that for domestic use and manufacturing, the cost of desalting water is already below the price of supplying natural sources of water in many arid and semiarid places. But there is a vast difference between producing suitable water for domestic and industrial use and producing water in the quantity and at the cost necessary for use in agriculture. Estimates show that the water needed to support one worker in arid land agriculture would normally support sixty workers in manufacturing. Meigs points out that several leading authorities admit that desalted water for agriculture is simply "too expensive, now and in the indefinite future." On the basis of his experience, one such authority, Carl Hodges of the University of Arizona, gives the tentative figure that by the year 2000 A.D. the most economical means of desalting water will cost twenty cents per 1,000 gallons. While this cost is but a fraction of what it costs to desalt water today, this price is still way above what the farmer pays for irrigation water. To this cost must be added the expense of transporting the water to the field. On this point N. Wollman of the University of New Mexico said in a speech at the conference: "Desalination and delivery to point of use is likely to be too expensive in the foreseeable future to be justified for agriculture...." These statements ought to make it clear that desalination is not the key to the reclaiming of arid lands for agriculture. Desert cities will probably continue to grow and new cities will spring up — perhaps aided by desalination. But vast new agricultural breadbaskets as a result of desalting seawater? No, this is but a dream. The race to supply food for an exploding worldwide population is a lost cause if the big hope is desalination.
A Unique Pilot Project
Near the Mexican desert seacoast town of Puerto Pefiasco, some 160 air miles from Tucson, is a unique project which represents an interesting attempt to solve the food problems in arid lands. This experimental project, which is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and conducted jointly by the Universities of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, is an integrated system that is designed to provide power, water and food on desert coasts. The authors had the opportunity to visit this project during the course of the Arid Lands Conference. This is how the operation works: Waste heat from diesel-engine-driven electric generators is used to desalt seawater. This fresh water is piped to vegetables planted within controlled-environment, greenhouse-like structures of air-inflated plastic. Since the air within the greenhouse is nearly saturated, the water required by the plants is small compared to plants grown outdoors or in a conventional greenhouse. This is important when the water being used is expensive desalted seawater. Finally, exhaust gases from the engines, after being cleaned in seawater scrubbers, are used to enrich the atmosphere within the plastic hemispheres with carbon dioxide. This accelerates the growth of the plants inside. So far some 18 kinds of vegetables have been grown in this manner with varying results. Certain vegetables grow twice as fast and/or give much higher yields than those produced outdoors or under normal greenhouse conditions. Although they have been controlled to this point, disease problems have occurred and are an ever-present threat because of the extremely moist environment. Also some varieties have produced abnormal growth. Believers in the project say that all that is needed to make this system work on a large scale is lots of time and money. It is pointed out that if a mere 5 percent of the earth's desert coasts (some 925 miles) were developed to a depth of twenty miles, using a system which produces food at rates which have already been attained, enough food for feeding one billion people could be grown (Arid Lands in Perspective, page 124). On paper, such developments look promising. Already the first large-scale installation of such a project is being planned in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf sheikdom of Abu Dhabi. It is approximately ten times the size of the Puerto Pefiasco pilot project. But how many arid countries have the kind of money necessary to build such highly sophisticated projects on a scale that will make a significant contribution to their food supply? Very, very few. The average arid country is not an oil-rich Arab sheikdom — and the Rockefeller Foundation can't support the world! Further, how many arid lands have the educated and skilled personnel necessary to successfully operate such a sophisticated project? The answers to these questions very quickly bring us face to face with stark reality!
Quality the Missing Ingredient
There is yet another glaring weakness in controlled-environment projects such as that just described. The food plants are grown directly in beach sand that is leached with desalted water. This sterile sand is sometimes lacking in the elements necessary for plant growth. It is always lacking in the humus that should produce the microbes that are essential for converting minerals and humus into balanced plant food. Once the plants are growing in the sand, they are control-fed with liquid nutrient solutions made from dry commercial-grade fertilizer. The fertilizer compounds are completely water soluble and are applied through the irrigation system. Plants grown under these artificial conditions look good. But the truth is, the nutrient simply cannot supply the plants — and ultimately the human body — with all that is needed for good health. Yet this factor is being entirely ignored! There is apparently concern only for the yield — the bulk — which can be produced. We were told that no experiments are under way or even being planned which would test the nutritional effects of such chemically grown food plants. Health-giving and life-sustaining food can come only from plants grown in balanced, "living" soil. Such foods do not come from plants grown on sterile sand and nourished with chemical mixtures. Yet, the long-range effects of a diet consisting mainly of such types of incomplete food is not being considered.
Irrigation — and Education
Another major hope for solving the water problem of arid lands is irrigation. About 368 million acres are presently being irrigated in the world. Though this is a small percentage of the total agricultural land, irrigated land produces a disproportionately large percentage of the world's food supply. Some authorities feel that by 2000 A.D. the amount of irrigated acreage could be doubled. But for this to occur the same old haunting problems must be hurdled. First, there is the matter of money. Like all other schemes to utilize the arid lands, it costs huge sums of money to build dams and to install complex irrigation equipment. But difficult as the money matter may be, it is perhaps the easiest part of the problem to solve. Far more difficult to solve is the knotty problem of finding or training the skilled personnel necessary to successfully operate irrigation projects. This involves the critical factor of education. In many arid lands, the nation is so poor that only a third or a fourth of the young are receiving a primary education, and only a tenth of these go on to secondary school. Further, many of those who do receive an education in these lands are trained in fields utterly unrelated to the manpower needs of their country. "Far too much emphasis is put on higher degrees when the greatest need is for middle-level persons with specialized skills," reported W.H. Walker of the Ford Foundation. "If education does not become a major force in bringing about the necessary changes," he warned, "we have lost the battle for 'freedom from hunger' in the race with population." Another major problem is what W.E. Warne called "the social problem of water." "Engineers may construct irrigation projects," Mr. Warne reported, "but until the people who must use them to water their crops are organized, the works will not be used nor will they be maintained." He cited as an example a project in Afghanistan. Though technically well-conceived, this particular project has not prospered in many years for the reasons just discussed. Engineering developments are far ahead of education and government, Mr. Warne continued, and "unless there is some catching up done soon, the capital being invested in water-project development in underdeveloped arid regions will result in many unused canals by 2000 A.D., and the great expectation of increasing food supplies will be shattered."
Political Climate Lacking
The hard truth is that most arid lands today simply lack what it takes to make irrigation successful. In fact, as another delegate to the conference pointed out: "Only in Australia and the Western United States is the arid area favored in its growth by a uniform cultural-economic-political environment attuned to the conditions requisite for economic growth. In all other arid areas... severe restraints are imposed by the socio-cultural-political systems... These arid areas start their climb not from zero, but from less than zero...." (Paper by M. M. Kelso) D. W. Thorne, an international technical advisor on irrigation, commented that too much attention is usually given to planning and completing the construction details on irrigation projects. At the same time, he said, far too little is devoted to making the projects operate as effective farming systems. What is the result of this? The usual result is a moderately primitive farming operation superimposed on an expensive water storage and distribution system. The farmers are unable to repay the costs of the system, and the country's plans and investments to provide increased food supplies fall far short of the goals. But even this is not the entire story. Given the capital, the skilled personnel and a workable government, there is still another important factor to be considered. That factor is the long-range ability of desert lands to produce under irrigation systems.
The Hazards of Irrigation
"Poor drainage in the flat desert plains under extensive irrigation threatens eventual failure of irrigation," warned H.B. Peterson of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration in Washington. He explained that desert irrigation is caught between the twin hazards of water logging and salinity. Artificial drainage using mechanical power can prevent or delay the salt hazard. But pumping ground-water reservoirs to relieve water logging can create a new hazard — over pumping. Over-pumping may eventually exhaust these supplies. Mr. Peterson is concerned about upsetting the sensitive desert environment. "Using modern technology, much can be done by man to permit further utilization of the attractive desert environment," he said, "but great care and forethought are required lest utilization becomes exploitation and the ecological consequences outweigh the benefits." Those consequences could easily be less land producing less food than ever before! In certain parts of the world, irrigation projects have yet other problems. "Desert irrigation schemes in Africa are particularly vulnerable to attack by the desert locusts" said J.L. Cloudsley-Thompson of the University of Khartoum, the Sudan. "Desert irrigation schemes are almost certain to become focal centers for... diseases transmitted by invertebrate vectors... The development of man-made lakes and canals in tropical regions introduces many other problems of medical entomology." Mr. Cloudsley-Thompson concluded: "Although much could be done in the semiarid savanna lands of Africa, it is well to be realistic. It would be more profitable for the world to invest in land that is already productive. Much of the money and technical advice supplied to underdeveloped countries by national and international agencies is misapplied or wasted... Development plans must be accompanied by education."
Other Miscellaneous Schemes
There are a number of other schemes which are being tried and talked about in the effort to surmount the water problem of arid lands. Now under investigation are several means of collecting surface runoff. If the scant rain which falls on ten acres can be induced to trickle into a storage area, then enough water may be available to produce food on at least a part of one acre. Another professor described his experiments with a process called "trickle irrigation." This method conserves water by applying it close to the plants in drips only as fast as the plant can use it, thus eliminating evaporation losses. Further, because only very small amounts of water are used, the water can be quite saline without causing trouble. Yields in experimental plots have been double or better than yields produced by traditional irrigation methods. In this scheme, however, he fed his plants with water soluble fertilizers similar to the Puerto Periasco experiment. And, as in the other experiments, the nutrition factor is far down on the list of importance.
Is It a Lost Cause?
Man is trying his best to utilize the arid lands before it is too late. But his whole system of government, education and economics — indeed, his very own nature — militates against him. Man may find short-term solutions, or solutions which have a limited application — but he is farther than ever from making the arid lands truly productive on a global basis. The fact is that "historically, we have been more adept at making deserts than in the successful use of those made by, nature" (Zeller). Yes, with few exceptions, land use has been synonymous with land abuse! And the shocking truth is that, despite his efforts at reclamation, man today is creating deserts far faster than he is reclaiming them. Look at Africa for a moment. "The agricultural outlook for the arid zones of North Africa is rather grim," H.N. LeHouerou of the Expanded Program of Technical Assistance, told the conference. "The pasture lands are rapidly becoming depleted and the desert gains more than 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) per year on the average." In places, the desert in North Africa is advancing up to 30 miles per year! "According to the best possible hypothesis," LeHouerou continued, "one can only hope to maintain the present standard of living between now and 1980." That standard is a paltry $60 per capita per year for the agricultural population. Other speakers voiced the same pessimism about Africa and stated that further losses of land to the desert must somehow be stopped immediately. But how? And by whom?
The Deserts Reclaimed!
Any real and permanent solution to the problems of arid lands must include a source of usable water, an educated populace, an equitable government, and a sound economic system — all on a global basis. Good News is that just such a solution is going to be brought about. It is described, believe it or not, in the book that dares to foretell the future — the Bible. Here is the description of how the Bible claims the water problem will be solved: "Even the wilderness and desert will rejoice in those days; the desert will blossom with flowers.... Springs will burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground will become a pool, with springs of water in the thirsty land. Where desert jackals lived, there will be reeds and rushes"! (Isaiah 35:1, 6, 7, Living Prophecies translation) Could this water come from deep aquifers such as the "vast reservoir which underlies an extensive area of the Sahara"? Geologists believe these underground reservoirs are of such dimensions that they are virtually inexhaustible. Here is an added description: "In the deserts will be pools of water, and rivers fed by springs shall flow across the dry, parched ground. I [God) will plant trees — cedars, myrtle, olive trees, the cypress, fir and pine — on barren land" (Isaiah 41:18-19). Man cut down the trees and thus began the cycle of destruction which has caused many of today's deserts. But in the world tomorrow that destructive cycle will be stopped — and reversed. It is also interesting to note that in many desert areas there are "deep and well-formed fossil soils, which call for nothing more for revitalization than water and regeneration of microorganisms" (Drouhin). Yes, in the world tomorrow the soils of the desert will be maintained by following sound principles of agriculture. What of the system of government and education necessary for this agricultural program to function? The whole story of future world development is made plain in vivid detail in our attractive free booklet, The Wonderful World Tomorrow - What It Will Be Like. Also read our newest booklet, Famine — Can We Survive. It will be coming off the press very shortly. Reserve your copy today.