14-20 March 2014 #698

Water, water, everywhere

Let’s now green our desert areas
Hazel Henderson

Providing water for our still growing human population is reaching crisis levels. Floods and droughts have ravaged Asia, Latin America, Australia, Europe and the United States in the past year. The US and UK have seen unprecedented typhoons and winter storms.

The Earth’s surface is largely covered with water. So, why has the world’s attention focused on the three percent of fresh water on our planet, on water management, pollution, waste and recycling? Yet 97 percent of the water on Earth is saline: oceans, salty lakes and brackish wetlands are ignored in policy, finance, business and public debate. But finally, unnoticed research on the 10,000 salt-loving halophyte plants which grow in deserts and thrive on seawater is coming to light. Halophyte plants can provide humans with food, fibre, edible oils and biofuels. Indeed, the only biofuels that meet ethical criteria are those based on algae grown on seawater.

In the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk in 2014, water rose to third place behind fiscal crises in key economies and structurally high unemployment/underemployment. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) provides a welcome global focus on the needed transition to renewable energy, many forms of which will conserve water and provide better methods of desalination and treatment.

Fossil-fueled and nuclear power plants are prodigious gulpers of water, another reason for the shift to renewables. Additional risk factors focus on rising ocean levels and acidification as CO2 emissions are absorbed by oceans which are heating faster than previous models predicted. This led to renewed interest in ocean thermal differentials as a source of electricity along with ocean currents and wave energy technologies.

The Earth Systems Science program at NASA is the most comprehensive approach to understanding how our planet processes the daily free photons from the Sun, through the atmosphere and ocean currents, which combined with geothermal energy from its core, create the conditions for life on Earth. This daily information on how our planet functions and our human effects on it must now be cranked into all financial and business risk-analysis models. Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age: from Economism to Earth Systems Science.

Bringing desert areas into food, fibre and fuel production by employing saline agriculture and these thousands of salt-loving plants is now the lowest hanging fruit for humanity to address its myriad crises of tunnel vision: inequality, poverty, pollution, food, water, energy and political conflicts.

Desert-greening science has been quietly maturing for decades with experiments in many countries in the Middle East, China, Australia, Mexico and the US. Today, business plans are emerging, such as DESERTCorp, by the Planck Foundation in Amsterdam, as well as the work of Carl Hodges in Egypt and the U.S.; Allan Savorys Savory Institute in Zimbabwe and Australia and the Grasslands Project in South Dakota, U.S., with the Capital Institute; the research of Mae-Wan Ho of ISIS in Britain; Wes Jacksons Land Institute in Kansas, U.S; Janine Benyus at Biomimicry 3.8; Gunter Pauli at ZERI; and many other projects.

A biofuels breakthrough was announced, January 22, in Abu Dhabi that Boeing, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are producing biofuel for jet aircraft made from algae grown on desert land, irrigated with seawater. The UAE has become a leader in researching desert land and seawater to grow sustainable biofuel feedstocks with potential applications in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, worries about shale fuels include their huge water requirements, methane emissions, pipeline leaks, earthquakes and other environmental problems.

Humanity can now stop digging up the Earth and look up harvesting the free photons from our Sun as green plants do, providing our food. Let’s now green our desert areas, growing salt-loving crops using abundant land, salt waters and sunlight. Lets accelerate the global transition, to the more equitable, knowledge-rich, cleaner, greener economies now within our grasp.

Hazel Henderson is author of many books and co-developed the Principles of Ethical Biomimicry Finance.