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Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, issue four, volume i, II, 5th July (2010).

Apolitical hydrogeology scrutinised

Progressive Development: To mitigate the negative impact
of global warming on the semi-arid regions.
Ed: Arie S Issar.
Springer. ISBN 978-3-642-10639-2
Price £106.00 (hardback).

by Fred Pearce

There are two ways of trying to predict how climate change will play out in the coming decades at different places round the world. One is climate modelling. The other is to look for analogies in the climate of the past. This latter route is the one adopted over many years by Arie Issar of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research of Ben Gurion University in the Negev.

Over the years, Issar has assembled plenty of evidence to show that whenever the world warms, the Middle East becomes drier. Dry enough for civilisations to fail. He has charted biblical stories of drought, famine and pestilence in the context of such changes. It is a compelling story, backed up by studies in other arid regions from the American West to Australia and the Sahara. And his conclusion that the world is headed that way again is corroborated by climate modellers who find that, whatever the local uncertainties, in general global warming will result in wet areas becoming wetter and dry areas becoming drier.

The narrative is made all the more compelling because Issar has also documented how communities across the region have responded to these past periods of intense drying: from the invention of irrigated agriculture through to earth structures harvesting sparse rains, to terracing hillsides. These are all exciting hydrologists once more as they contemplate resumed drying in the 21st century.

But Issar goes further this time. He warns that, with populations so much larger than before, the region cannot get by just through sinking some more wells or building low walls round hillsides to trap and divert the rains. We will need big engineering. And not just in the Middle East. In this book, compiled with a number of co-authors, he lays out a grand plan for "progressive development" of water supplies in dry areas destined to become yet drier.

At root, Issar is a techno-optimist. He spends several chapters exploring, and refuting, neo-Malthusian ideas about our environmental future. And he concludes that mostly, "there is enough water in the arid and semi-arid regions" to enable development projects to succeed. "Human ingenuity will determine whether this water can be utilized to a positive end."

He proposes massive exploitation of underground water reserves beneath deserts such as the Sahara and the Arabian peninsula. These are fossil reserves laid down in wetter times and many of them are thousands of years old. But he has little time for those who argue that to pump them out is unsustainable. If they are there, we should use them, he says. Thus existing megaprojects like Colonel Gadaffi's Great Man-made River Project in Libya, which taps Saharan fossil water to irrigate crops on farms on the Mediterranean coastline, get his approval.

And he suggests more, and even bigger. For instance, he backs the idea of diverting water from the River Congo in central Africa, the world's second largest river, to replenish Lake Chad on the edge of the Sahara, and - more cautiously - harnessing the north-flowing River Ob in Siberia to revive the Aral Sea in central Asia.

Issar is also a backer of "greening the deserts" through large forest plantations that might attract rain and stabilise soils. "Vast areas which are presently bare dry lands, sustained aboreal vegetation during historical and pre-historical periods," he points out. He suggests beginning by planting the coastline of the Negev, Sinai and Sahara deserts. But - in keeping perhaps with an older generation of Israeli researchers infused with the spirit of pioneers in the desert - he has some suggestions that many will find unpalatable in their social consequences. In the new hydrological world he proposes, "nomads" must be settled. Having seen for myself the social consequences of Israel imposing this dictum on the Bedouin of the Negev, I am not confident that this can be done without huge social damage. And he has bland approval for Israel's National Water Carrier, which empties the River Jordan to irrigate the Negev, to the severe detriment of both the Dead Sea and the country of Jordan.

Issar is no political Neanderthal. But this book avoids going into the political and social implications of what has been done, and what might be done in future. In a region where water matters almost as much as land, that is a significant failing.

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