Water management in the desert

Thousands of years ago, the Sahara was a savannah and populated by humans. Below the desert are vast groundwater reservoirs that were formed at the time it was still raining there. Although tempting, tapping these reservoirs is a non-sustainable solution. Eventually, this source of ‘fossil water’ will be depleted.

Logically, the second solution that comes into mind is the construction of large desalination plants at the coast. Desalinated sea water could be pumped into vast irrigation networks. However, most desalination plants are burning fossil fuels. It is better to harvest solar and wind power.

Greening the desert, with water from solar powered desalination plants and large scale irrigation schemes, is a huge engineering challenge. There are several projects that aim at the production of solar energy and/or reforestation of the desert, such as Greening the DesertSahara Forest Project and Desertech.

A solar farm at Royalla, near Canberra, by Allan Sharp.

Nature is a great engineer

Nature shows great engineering skills in areas with enough fresh water. Give a plot of cultivated land to nature and soon the land is being covered by vegetation. What’s more: the newly formed forest has a positive impact on the local climate, because it acts as a water buffer.

On the downside: most plants can’t subtract fresh water from the air or sea water, and they are transpiring water to the air continuously. This hinders the start-up of a new forest in a desert. Can we engineer a smart technological solution to overcome these limitations in desert areas?

“Can we support tree growth in desert areas by adding smart technology to the ecosystem?”

Technology developers can learn a lot from the way nature works. Plants are beautiful ‘machines’, with some really cool ‘features’. Plants harvest water and nutrients from the soil. They produce sugars by means of photosynthesis and they reproduce themselves exponentially. They cooperate with insects, birds and animals, who spread the seeds in return for food. The technological challenge is to provide the missing link for the reforestation of deserts.

The era of the robot

Technology is evolving extremely fast these days. Solar power, water harvesting from the air, autonomous cars and drones, sensors, 3D-printing and artificial intelligence are all within reach.

By combining these technologies and some more, it is possible to design robots that can work together with nature. Think of robots that produce fresh water from air moisture or sea water, robots that grow seedlings, robots that plant young trees, robots that observe the growth of the trees, robots that 3D-print water retaining plant cocoons, robots that dig channels, and so on.

Sounds futuristic? Take a look at this video:

Video: TreeRover –  a tree planting robot, by Iota Enterprises, Canada.

Soon, robots will be commonplace in agriculture. Robots are able to harvest fruit and vegetables. This robot is harvesting sweet-pepper in a greenhouse:

Video: an autonomous harvesting robot for sweet-pepper in greenhouses, by Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

The videos above show individual robots performing a complex task. In order to reforest desert areas autonomously, the robots must join forces. Nature is a source of inspiration for robot developers:

Video: Termite-inspired robots can build unsupervised, by National Geographic.

In the desert area destined for reforestation, some robots will be on a fixed location; others will be driving or flying through the area. Some robots will be as light as hummingbirds and others will be as large as elephants. Once the trees are growing, some of the robots can move on to new areas.

The charm of this approach is that it can start locally and grow exponentially as technology, funding and ecosystems evolve.

Getting started

Nowadays, it is easier than ever to start an exponentially growing organisation, by means of crowd sourcing and crowd funding.

Therefore it could all start with a network of universities and innovative companies that join forces to develop new robots. How about a contest to build an ecosystem with solar powered robots, just like the world solar challenge?

“Innovation is all about asking the right questions, to the right people.”

When the ideas get traction, they will spread on the internet like wildfire. Eventually, they will inspire people who invest their Silicon Valley revenues in greening the planet.

Artificial intelligence

Let’s jump to the year 2020. Robot technology has proven to be successful in forestry and angel investors have paid for a team of robots. Tree planting robots are reforesting land, working from the edge of the desert and moving further on at regular time intervals. They are supported by a crew of energy and water producing robots and supervised by drones.

Video: Atlas robot walking in a forest, by Boston Dynamics Inc, USA.

What will have been established by 2020 is a linear process. It will still take a long time to cultivate and reforest entire deserts. Many more robots will be needed, in order to accelerate the growth of the acreage of reforested land. Although robots don’t need an incentive to continue working, we humans need an incentive to produce more robots, because they cost money.

If only robots could reproduce themselves, just like living creatures. Their impact would grow much faster, maybe even exponentially.

“Just think of fully automated robot factories, where smart robots are designing and producing even smarter robots.”

Now it gets scary. Now we can easily get into a situation, where robots are improving robots to such a degree that their artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. At some point, these very intelligent robots may decide to keep humans out of their recently reclaimed land.

Elon Musk (the electric car manufacturer) is warning for the potential harm that artificial intelligence can do. Therefore he funded research on friendly artificial intelligence.

Engineering the climate

Finally, we jump to the year 2030. Robots have become a valuable addition to society and nature. Swarms of friendly robots are greening the desert at an accelerating speed. The newly formed forests and farmlands start to have an impact on the climate.

On a regional scale, the daily fluctuations of the temperature of the former desert are dampened. Water is buffered by the trees and in the soil. In semi-arid areas, the former hydrological cycle is restored. In dry areas, the fresh water supply is more or less permanent. On a global scale, the vegetation acts as a buffer for the greenhouse gas CO2 and the former deserts produce sustainable energy for the urban areas of the world…


Start-ups, universities and international organisations are developing solutions for large scale environmental problems. They use the internet for fund raising, crowd sourcing, and sharing the latest technologies.

Technological capabilities are developing at a dazzling rate. In the near future, robot swarms can restore entire ecosystems for us. The building blocks are already available.

Joost Icke, software manager at Deltares and environmental engineer.

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Further reading:

The picture above this post was made in Tunisia by Dennis Jarvis.