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Thousand Wells for Darfur Follows Discovery of Ancient Lake

BOSTON, Massachusetts, July 23, 2007 (ENS) - An underground lake the size of Lake Erie has been discovered beneath the windblown sands of Sudan's Darfur region. The newly mapped water source may help to alleviate the conflict between Arab nomads and the African farming population that has killed more than 200,000 people and affected at least four million others since 2003.

Dr. Farouk El-Baz (Photo courtesy Boston University)
Identification of the lake’s shorelines was done by geologist Dr. Farouk El-Baz, director of Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing, and Dr. Eman Ghoneim, a research professor at the center.

Based on location of the Northern Darfur Mega-lake, a new humanitarian initiative to bring water resources to the region has been launched by the government of Sudan following a meeting last month between El-Baz and Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir.

Called "1,000 Wells for Darfur," the plan aims to create new groundwater resources to help establish peace and economic security in the region.

The project gained immediate support from the government of Egypt - Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Dr. Mahmoud Abu Zeid has pledged to drill the initial 20 wells.

The United Nations Mission in Sudan also plans to drill several wells for use by its peacekeeping forces.

Sudan's Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Dr. Kamal Ali, who also attended the meeting, said he believes "1,000 Wells for Darfur" will be a success.

Northern Darfur Mega-lake (Map courtesy BU Center for Remote Sensing)
"Access to fresh water is essential for refugee survival, will help the peace process, and provides the necessary resources for the much needed economic development in Darfur," said El-Baz.

"Any person, organization or county can contribute to this humanitarian effort. Those who provide $10 million or drill 10 wells will have their names on the wells forever," he said.

Though the ancient lake has dried up, its water is believed to have sunk into the sand and become part of the groundwater.

"One thing is certain – much of the lake’s water would have seeped through the sandstone substrate to accumulate as groundwater," said El-Baz.

Egyptian born El-Baz, a veteran of NASA’s Apollo program of lunar exploration, has pioneered the study of desert landscapes using satellite images, particularly for the location of groundwater resources in the Middle East and Africa.

El-Baz said the lake under Darfur lies at 573 meters above sea level. It occupies an area of 30,750 square kilometers, or 11,873 square miles, about the size of Lake Erie, and would have contained some 2,530 cubic kilometers of water when full during humid climate phases in the past.

It would not be the first time satellite data has helped find water beneath the Sahara Desert. In the early 1980s, El-Baz detected a similar ancient lake in the East Uweint basin in southwestern Egypt, where water is as close as 25 meters below the sandy surface. Since then, 500 wells have been dug, irrigating up to 150,000 acres of farmland in this area, just northeast of Darfur.

African village destroyed in the complex Darfur conflict, waged in part over control of water resources (Photo courtesy U.S. State Dept.)
"We hope this new lake will do the same for the Sudanese, and especially for the people of Darfur," says Ghoneim.

El-Baz says the 1,000 Wells initiative has been well received by the public in Sudan. "The Governor of Northern Darfur Osman Kebir told me that news of the lake discovery brought smiles to the faces of the people in Darfur, and much needed hope to us all," said El-Baz.

According to the Network for Water and Sanitation, NETWAS, a Nairobi-based capacity building and information network for Africa, water conflicts in Darfur have worsened over the past two decades as less rain has fallen on the region.

"The rainfall pattern has changed in the last 20 years, leading to a decline in intensity and shortened rainfall duration," NETWAS says.

"The rainy season used to be May-Sept but has today been shortened to June-August," says NETWAS. "Southward encroachment of the desert presents a serious threat to the livelihoods of the communities."

Sudan Liberation Army soldiers, February 2007 (Photo by Tim McKulka courtesy UNMIS)
The new water resource is sorely needed in Darfur where the security situation continues to deteriorate displacing more than 400,000 people in the last year, according to the Washington-based Save Darfur Coalition.

Four million people are now affected by the crisis, which has spread from Sudan into Chad and the Central African Republic, and almost a quarter of these people cannot get humanitarian assistance because of insecurity.

The next step for the 1,000 Wells for Darfur project is the identification of the best locations for drilling of the initial wells.

"We plan to select the most appropriate sites through detailed analysis of space image data, geophysical surveys by local experts to confirm satellite image interpretations, and on-the-ground field data collection to determine the needs of the local communities," said El-Baz.

"New water resources will provide hope to the people of northwestern Sudan and will also allow for the migration of the labor force closer to the wells," he said, "where economic development is suitable and environmentally sustainable."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.



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