It once was the Garden of Eden and it can be again.
That’s the premise of a plan to regreen the Sinai Desert, a small triangle of land that connects Egypt and Asia – one which could also change the region’s weather.
The Weather Makers, a Dutch firm of “holistic engineers”, believe it could be transformed from desert into a green haven that would alter local weather patterns and by changing wind direction, bring more rain.
“If anybody doubts that the Sinai can be regreened,” Ties Van der Hoeven told an Egyptian delegation in February 2021, “then you have to understand that landing on the moon was once thought unrealistic. They didn’t lay out a full, detailed roadmap when they started, but they had the vision. And step by step they made it happen.”
But one doesn’t have to look as far as the moon to see that it is possible to restore heavily degraded ecosystems. One can see it in how China restored its Loess plateau – techniques which have been shared and applied in many other places since. Water cycles have been restored everywhere from a small Indian village in a dry area to an intentional community in Portugal.
While a massive endeavour, regenerating an ecosystem the size of the Sinai could create huge benefits for local communities: increasing food, fresh water, jobs, peaceful lives and a sustainable future, says the project website. “But there’s more: we have discovered that a greener and cooler Sinai can bring more moisture to the region, and can even positively influence the larger weather systems that cause extreme weather around the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.”
It is a vision that began in a prosaic fashion with the idea of dredging Lake Bardawil, on the northern edge of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, in order to create a sustainable fishery and increase local revenues. The lake, once 20 to 40 meters deep, is just a few meters deep today. Dredging the lake and cutting channels to allow more water in from the Mediterranean would make it deeper, cooler and less salty, boosting fish stocks. Dredged material could be used to restore wetlands bordering the lake.
Morphological engineer Van der Hoeven, who devised a more eco-friendly and cost-effective dredging method while working for the Belgian company Deme, was contacted in January 2016 by Deme’s Egyptian representative, Malik Boukebbous, who had been asked by the Egyptian government to look into restoring Lake Bardawil.
That led Van der Hoeven to look at the Sinai peninsula in more detail, and the deeper he looked, the more potential he saw. What had likely turned the Sinai into a desert was human activity, such as tree clearing and animal grazing, that caused the soil to lose its structure and be washed away. That had caused Lake Bardawil to silt up – but paradoxically, Van der Hoeven thought, also offered a way to restore the Sinai desert as a whole. (Assuming, of course, that conflict in the area could be resolved.)
In 2017, he and two friends founded a company they named the Weather Makers, after a book by Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery that argues that ‘we already possess all the tools required to avoid catastrophic climate change’. They focused on tools to accelerate large-scale ecosystem regeneration, consulting with experts such as ecologist John D Liu who had made a documentary about the ambitious restoration of China’s Loess plateau, an area of northern China almost as large as France, led by Chinese scientist Li Rui.
The Loess plateau was then much like the Sinai. Its soil was silting up the Yellow river and farmers could barely grow any crops. While the area was huge, the plan was quite low tech. Planting trees on the hilltops. Terracing the steep slopes by hand. Adding organic material to the soil. Controlling grazing animals. Retaining water.
The astonishing transformation was documented in his video, Green Gold, which Van der Hoeven watched 35 times in a row. Liu, who now works with Commonland, a Dutch nonprofit, and Ecosystem Restoration Camps, a global network of hands-on, volunteer communities, took Van der Hoeven to China to see the Loess plateau in person.
“To be in a place that had been essentially a desert where now it’s raining cats and dogs, and it’s not flooding, because it’s being infiltrated and retained in the system – it was all just so impressive to him,” Liu told the Guardian. Liu also introduced him to Spanish meteorologist Millán Millán, whose research showed that even where ecosystems have been destroyed and rains have disappeared, the rains return when the ecosystem is restored.
The five step plan for regreening the Sinai is documented on the project website. Step one – restore the lagoon. Step two – restore the wetlands. Step three – reuse marine sediments. Step four – regreen the desert. Step five – restore the watershed.
While much of the evidence for the Sinai’s green past is historic, there is demonstrable evidence of how fertile the area can be in the form of the Habiba Organic Farm founded in the Bedouin town of Nuweiba in southern Sinai in 2007 to set an example of sustainable agriculture and the permaculture lifestyle locally and within the Sinai.
“Collaboration between Bedouin natives of the Sinai, with researchers from across Egypt and France, and the generous efforts of volunteers from around the world led to the development of a high yielding, purely organic farm that continues to deliver healthy, fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs to the local community.”
In winter, it grows fava beans, swiss chard, kohlrabi, kale, beetroot, salad leaves, rocket, parsley, dill, fennel, quinoa, spinach, onions and garlic, and tomatoes under cover. In summer, it grows okra, molokai, peanuts, melon, watermelon, pumpkin and sesame seeds. They also are growing mulberries, olives, pomegranates, corn, medjoul dates, and many herbs including basil, wild mint and rosemary.
‘Our biggest challenge? Lack of imagination’: the scientists turning the desert green. The Guardian, Mar. 20, 2021
Incredible plan to green the desert of Egypt. Innovative Techs, May 28, 2022
Regreening Sinai Peninsula: Ties van der Hoeven/Co-Founder of The Weather Makers. Direct Talk, NHK, Jan. 27, 2022
Al-Sisi follows up on development of North Sinais Bardawil Lake. Zawya, Nov. 10, 2020.
Cover image: MEDASSET, Wikimedia