In 1905, Jules Verne wrote a novel called Invasion of the Sea, in which European engineers try to create an inland sea in the lower parts of the Sahara Desert. The novel was actually based on similar plans by the French in the preceding century to increase communication, commerce, and military strategy in Northern Africa, and deals with themes of human ambition in the face of the power of nature.
The idea of flooding the desert to create an inland ocean has been prevalent throughout time, even to this day. In 2018, venture capitalist company Y Combinator proposed a similar desert flooding plan to create 4.5 million 0.38 square miles (1 sq km) water reservoirs in deserts, in order to grow phytoplankton and capture carbon emissions to reduce climate change.
Y Combinator characterizes deserts as “cheap, inhabited, unproductive land” that could be better used if changed into other types of ecosystems. Their plan envisions capturing 41.4 gigatonnes of CO2, more than current carbon emissions, by flooding a desert area equivalent “only” to half of the Sahara. The estimated cost of such an undertaking would round $50 trillion.
However, money would not be the only barrier for this type of project. The energy needed to move and desalinize that amount of water could basically be higher than what is used in the electrical grid today for all other purposes. Furthermore, as reported by NBC News, such a plan would endanger a complex ecosystem, disrupt natural climate balance, and distract from actual solutions that already exist and can be implemented, such as the ones listed in the Project Drawdown.
An Older Idea Than You Would Think
Surprisingly, there have been plans to flood the Sahara Desert since the 1870s. IFL Science listed some of them, which aimed to create transport and commercial routes, as well as electricity production and green-habitat generation.
The earliest one was proposed in 1877 by British engineer Donald McKenzie, who published a book called The Flooding of the Sahara. In it, he proposes a 400-mile canal through Morocco to create an ocean in the Sahara similar in size to Ireland. He wrote that navigation and agriculture could be thus enhanced in Northern Africa.
Only a year after, François-Elie Roudaire, a Frenchman backed by the Suez Canal diplomat-influencer Ferdinand de Lesseps, proposed a water route to southern Tunisia for similar purposes. It aimed to create an inland sea in the Chott el-Fejej section of the Sahara of 3.100 square miles (8.000 sq. km).
In the 20th c., the proposal was considered again, this time in Egypt: flooding an area known as the Qattara Depression in order to generate electricity. The water would flow to the depression from the Mediterranean Sea and then, after passing through energy-generating turbines, would evaporate, securing a cyclical water movement.
This idea prospered for several decades in various forms, even until the 1960s, when nuclear bombs were proposed to build the necessary canals. This was contemplated by the Plowshare Program, which at the time envisioned possible peaceful uses for nuclear energy. Ultimately, the idea was scrapped and nuclear bombings were banned by international treaties.
The Importance of the Sahara Desert
It is the largest hot desert on earth, and it was formerly a green wet area in the early middle Holocene, 11.000 to 5.000 years ago. But the Sahara today is an ecosystem that is still full of life. Beyond that, it influences global climate and vital biological processes on a planetary scale.
According to The Pipettepen, every year 450 million tons of dust from desserts carry vital nutrients to oceans. Nitrogen, iron, and phosphorus feed marine phytoplankton crucial for marine life ecosystems, but also for carbon capture (the very same process intended by Y Combinator’s dessert flooding plan).
Also, the airborne dust carried from the Sahara makes a transatlantic journey to feed the Amazon rainforest flora. Nasa‘s CALIPSO telescope documented this process and found that 182 million tons of dust leave the Sahara desert each year, and 27.7 million tons of that end up as part of the Amazon basin. Without it, the Amazon would not get enough crucial nutrients to prosper.
Deserts are deserts for a reason and are a vital part of the planet’s delicate natural balance. For the time being, flooding the Sahara does not seem to be a very good idea in the great scheme of things.