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Arid lands can they be reclaimed in time?

Can deserts and near-deserts be reclaimed in time
to prevent massive starvation in a world threatened by population explosion?
Here is a challenging, on-the-spot report from an international conference on this vital subject.


MORE than one third of the earth's land surface is arid or semiarid. These arid lands almost equal the combined areas of the North and South American continents.

That is a lot of land!

Sand deserts alone — and they are but one type of arid land — cover a total area almost twice the size of the U.S. That, too, is a huge chunk of territory.

Some sixty countries — about half of the nations in the world — are affected by aridity. Even in the agriculturally rich continental American states, 32 percent of the land is arid or semiarid.

As the food and population time-bomb keeps ticking away, can these arid lands be conquered and made useful to man before it is too late?


Getting the Facts

To bring our readers the answer to this far-reaching question, PLAIN TRUTH editors attended an international conference on "Arid Lands in a Changing World." It was held on the campus of the University of Arizona here in Tucson. Experts from more than thirty countries around the globe, including the Soviet Union, participated in the conference. They presented some 200 papers dedicated to solving a single, common problem: how to use arid lands to provide food and suitable living conditions for an exploding worldwide population.

"The whole plan to utilize extensive parts of the arid lands is presented as a possible contribution to the fight against the world hunger problem," said an Israeli participant.

An American delegate added hopefully: "These vast, largely uninhabited and underdeveloped areas likely will prove the pressure valve in absorbing an ever-increasing world population. And their cultivation may solve the critical problem of feeding increased billions of future world citizens."

But can the earth's sprawling deserts be cultivated on a large scale? Is it possible for the arid lands to fill the growing food gap?

And what about new cities, towns and industries in desert areas? Will today's wastelands be the boom areas of the next quarter century?

Behind all the visionary statements and the grandiose plans and schemes, what — in true perspective — are the real problems and promises of the earth's arid lands?


Basic Problem — Water

The most basic problem of all is simply a lack of water. All other problems in arid regions in some way relate to this major need. Any hope for the future development of arid lands rests on finding an adequate supply of usable water.

One possibility which has received considerable attention is the desalting of seawater.

Few people realize that the earth has some 20,000 miles of desert coastline. And "it is well demonstrated that the coastal desert areas provide one of the most desirable regions for human habitation, if the basic amenities of life can be supplied" (Arid Lands in Perspective, p. 121).

The key to supplying these basic amenities is primarily water. And being on the coast, what better way could there be to try to solve the water problem than by desalting seawater?

But to what stage of development has desalination progressed?

The noted authority on deserts, Peveril Meigs, says this: "Some authorities have high hopes set on this system, but it is still experimental. In the present stage of experiment in water desalination there are many slips between the hopes and the results." (All quotes from Meigs are from his article in Arid Lands in Perspective, a book published by the University of Arizona and released during the conference)

This is not to say that desalination is not already useful in a limited way. It may come as a surprise that for domestic use and manufacturing, the cost of desalting water is already below the price of supplying natural sources of water in many arid and semiarid places.

But there is a vast difference between producing suitable water for domestic and industrial use and producing water in the quantity and at the cost necessary for use in agriculture. Estimates show that the water needed to support one worker in arid land agriculture would normally support sixty workers in manufacturing.

Meigs points out that several leading authorities admit that desalted water for agriculture is simply "too expensive, now and in the indefinite future."

On the basis of his experience, one such authority, Carl Hodges of the University of Arizona, gives the tentative figure that by the year 2000 A.D. the most economical means of desalting water will cost twenty cents per 1,000 gallons. While this cost is but a fraction of what it costs to desalt water today, this price is still way above what the farmer pays for irrigation water. To this cost must be added the expense of transporting the water to the field.

On this point N. Wollman of the University of New Mexico said in a speech at the conference: "Desalination and delivery to point of use is likely to be too expensive in the foreseeable future to be justified for agriculture. . . ."

These statements ought to make it clear that desalination is not the key to the reclaiming of arid lands for agriculture.

Desert cities will probably continue to grow and new cities will spring up — perhaps aided by desalination. But vast new agricultural breadbaskets as a result of desalting seawater?

No, this is but a dream. The race to supply food for an exploding worldwide population is a lost cause if the big hope is desalination.


A Unique Pilot Project

Near the Mexican desert seacoast town of Puerto Pefiasco, some 160 air miles from Tucson, is a unique project which represents an interesting attempt to solve the food problems in arid lands. This experimental project, which is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and conducted jointly by the Universities of Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, is an integrated system that is designed to provide power, water and food on desert coasts.

The authors had the opportunity to visit this project during the course of the Arid Lands Conference.

This is how the operation works: Waste heat from diesel-engine-driven electric generators is used to desalt seawater. This fresh water is piped to vegetables planted within controlled-environment, greenhouse-like structures of air-inflated plastic. Since the air within the greenhouse is nearly saturated, the water required by the plants is small compared to plants grown outdoors or in a conventional greenhouse. This is important when the water being used is expensive desalted seawater.

Finally, exhaust gases from the engines, after being cleaned in seawater scrubbers, are used to enrich the atmosphere within the plastic hemispheres with carbon dioxide. This accelerates the growth of the plants inside.

So far some 18 kinds of vegetables have been grown in this manner with varying results. Certain vegetables grow twice as fast and/or give much higher yields than those produced outdoors or under normal greenhouse conditions.

Although they have been controlled to this point, disease problems have occurred and are an ever-present threat because of the extremely moist environment. Also some varieties have produced abnormal growth.

Believers in the project say that all that is needed to make this system work on a large scale is lots of time and money. It is pointed out that if a mere 5 percent of the earth's desert coasts (some 925 miles) were developed to a depth of twenty miles, using a system which produces food at rates which have already been attained, enough food for feeding one billion people could be grown (Arid Lands in Perspective, page 124).

On paper, such developments look promising.

Already the first large-scale installation of such a project is being planned in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf sheikdom of Abu Dhabi. It is approximately ten times the size of the Puerto Pefiasco pilot project.

But how many arid countries have the kind of money necessary to build such highly sophisticated projects on a scale that will make a significant contribution to their food supply? Very, very few. The average arid country is not an oil-rich Arab sheikdom — and the Rockefeller Foundation can't support the world!

Further, how many arid lands have the educated and skilled personnel necessary to successfully operate such a sophisticated project?

The answers to these questions very quickly bring us face to face with stark reality!


Quality the Missing Ingredient

There is yet another glaring weakness in controlled-environment projects such as that just described.

The food plants are grown directly in beach sand that is leached with desalted water. This sterile sand is sometimes lacking in the elements necessary for plant growth. It is always lacking in the humus that should produce the microbes that are essential for converting minerals and humus into balanced plant food.

Once the plants are growing in the sand, they are control-fed with liquid nutrient solutions made from dry commercial-grade fertilizer. The fertilizer compounds are completely water soluble and are applied through the irrigation system.

Plants grown under these artificial conditions look good. But the truth is, the nutrient simply cannot supply the plants — and ultimately the human body — with all that is needed for good health. Yet this factor is being entirely ignored! There is apparently concern only for the yield — the bulk — which can be produced.

We were told that no experiments are under way or even being planned which would test the nutritional effects of such chemically grown food plants.

Health-giving and life-sustaining food can come only from plants grown in balanced, "living" soil. Such foods do not come from plants grown on sterile sand and nourished with chemical mixtures.

Yet, the long-range effects of a diet consisting mainly of such types of incomplete food is not being considered.