Jordan has one of the world’s lowest levels of water resources available per person but the Sahara Forest Project (SFP), recently begun in the Red Sea port city of Aqaba, brings hope to the desert kingdom.
The $3.7 million project, funded mainly by Norway and the European Union, uses saltwater-cooled greenhouse technology and concentrated solar power. The station uses solar energy to desalinate seawater for crop irrigation.
The project was described by EU Ambassador to Jordan Andrea Matteo Fontana as an “excellent move towards the future.”
“As a nexus model, the project will be using solar power (energy security) to desalinate sea water (water security) and produce agriculture products (food security), in a clear, sustainable move to help Jordan, which is challenged by both water and energy supply to meet its food needs,” Fontana said in an interview.
“Moreover, all that (is done) without using traditional sources or depleting the scarce water and energy resources of the country.”
Fontana explained that the first phase of the project, to be built over three hectares, will produce 10,000 litres of fresh water daily from desalination by solar power and grow 130,000 kilograms of vegetables annually. The project includes two saltwater-cooled greenhouses and ponds for salt production.
The project area is to be expanded to 11 hectares in the second phase and 20 hectares in the third. “The ultimate goal is to reach 200 hectares. Agriculture as well as water production and solar generation will be increased accordingly, with various technologies since the facility is coupled with a research centre,” Fontana said.
The project was pitched to Jordan in 2010, with the blessings of Jordanian King Abdullah II and Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon Magnus, Fontana said. “It reflected a high-level understanding of the needs Jordan faced with water, energy and food scarcity challenges,” he said.
By using the latest technology in solar panels, the project is to provide clean and sustainable resources.
“Photovoltaic solar panels [are used] to generate electricity and desalinate seawater. The saltwater is used to cool the greenhouses and there are ponds to produce salt, as well as to grow algae in such special salty water and high temperature. Revegetation of original plants is another product on top of agriculture products,” Fontana said.
The project uses sun, saltwater, desert areas and carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce food, fresh water and clean energy, he added.
Jordan is trying to harness private sector innovation, arranging financing for recycling wastewater and enhancing water supplies through desalination. Morocco has a nationwide effort on groundwater management and Egypt is focusing on strengthening local accountability for water supply and sanitation services, especially in under-served rural areas.
The Sahara Forest Project should have a significant effect on other aspects of life in Jordan as well. A recent Stanford University report stated that Jordan, one of the world’s driest countries, could face more severe droughts unless new technologies are applied to farming and other sectors.
“Since the project is set to enhance more agriculture practices, using solar energy and desalinated seawater, there will be a very good socio-economic impact on surrounding communities through the creation of jobs, production of high- quality crops with an added value, being organic products, as well as serving to reduce CO2 emissions,” the EU ambassador said.
Fontana said the European Union has received positive feedback from local communities on such initiatives.
“The EU believes that more communication should be achieved so that better understanding will be ensured,” he said. “Furthermore, the EU believes that, once the Sahara Forest Project is fully implemented, and economic and social benefits start appearing through the provision of job opportunities, there will be bigger acceptance for such innovative initiatives.”
The European Union has been heavily involved in helping Jordan adapt to renewable energy to ease its reliance on imported crude oil and natural gas, which eats up nearly half of the cash-strapped Arab country’s budget.
Roufan Nahhas, based in Jordan, has been covering cultural issues in Jordan for more than two decades.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.