Solution for water crisis lies in developing saline agriculture

Solution for water crisis lies in developing saline agriculture

Providing water for our still growing human population is reaching crisis levels. Water is vital for agriculture, energy production and industrial processes worldwide.

Floods and droughts in Asia, Latin America, Europe and the United States accompanied unprecedented typhoons and winter storms. While none could be linked
directly to climate change, the debate has surfaced. Mainstream media started covering these issues more broadly.

Earth’s surface is largely covered with water. So,why has the world’s attention focussed on the three per cent of fresh water on our planet, on water management, pollution, waste and recycling? Yet 97 per cent of the water on earth is saline: oceans, salty lakes and brackish wetlands ignored in most policy, finance, business and public debates!

At last, unnoticed research on the 10,000 salt-loving halophyte plants which grow in deserts and thrive on seawater is coming to light. I have long reported on saline agriculture, noting that halophyte plants can provide humans with food, fiber, edible oils and biofuels. Indeed, the only biofuels that meet ethical criteria are those based on algae grown on seawater.

Today, as water-related risks reach crisis levels, they are changing traditional risk analysts’ focus on financial risk. In the World Economic Forums Global Risk in 2014, water rose to third place behind fiscal crises in key economies and structurally high unemployment/underemployment. The UN General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cited water and drought issues high on its agenda while many countries’ delegates voted to make oceans a stand-alone focus of the SDGs. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) provides a welcome global focus on the needed transition to renewable energy, many forms of which will conserve water and provide better methods of desalination and treatment.

Fossil-fuelled and nuclear power plants are prodigious gulpers of water, another reason for the shift to renewables. Additional risk factors focus on the rising ocean levels and acidification as CO2 emissions are absorbed by oceans which are heating faster than previous models predicted. This led to renewed interest in ocean thermal differentials as a source of electricity along with ocean currents and wave energy technologies.

Embracing this broader view, the 14th Delhi Sustainable Development Summit connected the dots in February 2014 as Attaining Energy, Water and Food Security for All. The International Conference on Sustainability in the Water-Energy-Food Nexus, May 19-20, 2014 in Bonn, Germany, takes the same systems approach.

Comprehensive approach

The Earth Systems Science programme at Nasa is the most comprehensive approach to understanding how our planet processes the daily free photons from the sun, through the atmosphere and ocean currents, which combined with geothermal energy from its core, create the conditions for life on Earth. This daily information on how our planet functions and our human effects on it must now be cranked into all financial and business risk-analysis models, as I outline in Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age: from Economism to Earth Systems Science, with foreword by Nasa chief scientist Dennis Bushnell, who is also an expert on halophyte plants and saline agriculture.

Bringing desert areas into food, fiber and fuel production by employing saline agriculture and these thousands of salt-loving plants is now the lowest hanging fruit for humanity to address its myriad crises of tunnel vision: inequality, poverty, pollution, food, water, energy and political conflicts.

Desert-greening science has been quietly maturing for decades with experiments in many countries in the Middle East, China, Australia, Mexico and the US. Today, business plans are emerging, such as DESERTCorp, by the Planck Foundation in Amsterdam, as well as the work of Carl Hodges in Egypt and the US; Allan Savorys Savory Institute in Zimbabwe and Australia and the Grasslands Project in South Dakota, US, with the Capital Institute.

A biofuels breakthrough was announced, January 22, in Abu Dhabi that Boeing, in partnership with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are producing biofuel for jet aircraft made from algae grown on desert land, irrigated with seawater. This Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) is affiliated with the MASDAR Institute. Director Alejandro Rio states, The UAE has become a leader in researching desert land and seawater to grow sustainable biofuel feedstocks with potential applications in other parts of the world. Other airlines are also researching biofuels, but all seem to find that oils from tar sands and shale are too dirty for jet fuel and that oil companies seem unwilling to refine these dirty oils to the standards needed for aviation since they see this market as too small. Meanwhile, worries about shale fuels include their huge water requirements, methane emissions, pipeline leaks, earthquakes and other environmental problems.

None of these hazardous forms of energy are needed. Humanity can now stop digging up the earth and look up harvesting the free photons from our sun as green plants do, providing our food. Let’s now green our desert areas, growing salt-loving crops using abundant land, salt waters and sunlight. Let’s accelerate the global transition, to the more equitable, knowledge-rich, cleaner, greener economies now within our grasp!