Lessons from the Sahara Forest Project

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Four years ago, architect Michael Pawlyn recorded a TED Talk at the TEDSalon London 2010, where he spoke about the benefits of biomimicry and how it can be used to change the way society approaches sustainable design. Watch his presentation above, and you will be excited about the wonder and simplicity of natural systems that are guiding the way that our cutting edge developers and dreamers are creating a sustainable future.

The second half of his talk Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture, focused on the potential of the Sahara Forest Project (SF Project). Put simply, the project is ‘…a combination of environmental technologies to enable restorative growth, defined as revegetation and creation of green jobs through profitable production of food, freshwater, biofuels and electricity…’. Essentially this project aims to revegetate large areas of arid desert, whilst simultaneously using a closed loop system to create food, energy, freshwater and natural building products on the same land.

Four years on, the Sahara Forest Project has strong backing by many nations, and Qatar has hosted the pilot facility to asses and nurture the viability of the project since its completion in December 2012. In June of this year, Jordan signed an agreement to build a Test & Demonstration Centre, which will act as a hub for innovation and capability to showcase the economic viability of the project.

Qatar Plant

Jordan Facility

So what can we learn from this amazing experiment and its successes to date? Here are five lessons that will have a profound impact on the future of this project, and other projects that are in the pipeline around the world.

1. Closed Loop design systems work on a large scale.

Closed Loop systems are those with value chains of waste becoming inputs for new processes. Generally this can be applied on a cottage industry scale, with single businesses selling on their waste products to create reusable and recyclable products (think composting etc). Melbourne’s City Harvest Program goes one step further, using food waste as fertiliser for city gardens (tended by disadvantaged youths), with the produce sold back to restaurants. What we see with the SF Project, is this on a whole of community scale: all inputs are used to create a sustainable closed loop system to provide food, water, materials and energy back to (potentially) an entire regional population.

2. Saltwater based greenhouses are able to regenerate arid landscapes.

Not only do these greenhouses create freshwater from saltwater inputs, but they create natural building materials from the remaining saltwater residuals. On top of this, they push excess freshwater and phosphates (from saltwater) into the surrounding landscapes, promoting revegetation and healthy soils. Additionally it provides alternatives to the arid coastal desalination plants of the middle east that are affecting soil salinity in surrounding regions, increasing the desertification of the landscape and of northern Africa. This brings to mind similar Australian arid greenhouse projects discussed in a previous post, namely Sundrop Farms.

3. The SF Project has enabled Norway, Jordan and Qatar to access a future skills diversification in the region that is not driven by an oil-centric economy. 

Increased economic and technological cooperation between these european and middle eastern nations opens up a raft of new opportunities for economic participation. Qatar alone has 25.24 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, not to mention holding a large share of the world’s natural gas assets, yet this project offers a solution that can create a multiskilled workforce to move away from the fossil fuel driven economy. It will allow citizens of Qatar (at least) to build careers in cutting edge technological and agricultural fields at home.

4. Large scale SF Projects are financially viable and economically responsible.

The SF Project is owned by a Norwegian private limited liability company, so it has financial responsibilities to its public (state) and private investors. To date, the projects have realised positive returns to the company’s triple bottom line, and technologies and turnkey systems developed have huge market potential for global production and installation. Signatory to the Qatar project, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, Prime Minister of Qatar was right in saying “I think this will not be important only to Qatar, but to the whole region and elsewhere where they have the same climate as Qatar. So, I have a lot of hope”.

5. Multilateral cooperation is needed to create truly sustainable solutions for our global community.

Multilateral cooperation allows a diversity of skills and expertise to flow into one solution. It also accelerates sustainable development because it encourages trade liberalisation; spreads financial risk by increasing multilateral resource pools and lowering international debt; makes conservation and trade mutually beneficial; and encourages cross border macroeconomic policy to focus on international development and sustainable technologies. It also generates goodwill and trust, allowing for a stronger more cohesive global community.

Sustaining People will continue to watch the SF Project with great interest over the coming years. Australia is just as capable of innovation as Qatar, Norway and Jordan, and with a population looking past our dire climate change politics, there is real promise for more sustainable development projects to complement and build on the efforts of our international neighbours.

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