Making Deserts Green

Projects around the world have turned arid land into fertile green spaces.

What’s at Stake

A third of the Earth’s landmass is desert, and the amount of desert is increasing. Deserts mean infertile soil, erosion and dust storms, and increased vulnerability to natural disasters. They create many social consequences such as famine, poverty, social unrest, and mass migration. But what if we could transform dry areas into fertile green spaces? People have already done so—on a large scale. 

Green Gold on China’s Loess Plateau

The Loess Plateau in China is about the size of France and is home to about 50 million people. It was once a major agricultural center, but centuries of overuse and overgrazing led to one of the highest erosion rates in the world—and deep poverty. The Chinese government and the World Bank spent three years planning how to restore the Loess Plateau to ecological health. It took years more to carry out the plan. 

Some steps the project took included: ban tree cutting, ban planting on steep slopes (which were terraced by hand as part of the project), ban free-range grazing of livestock, establish ecological land free of agriculture, and create water-harvesting structures. 

One of the keys to success in restoring the Loess region’s soil was building an underground community to keep it healthy—microbes, fungi, worms, nematodes, etc. “Building resilience in healthy and restored soils is essential to help them retain functions in a world of global environmental change, in which disturbances, such as drought and flooding, are expected,” writes Richard Blaustein in this 2018 story.

The results? According to the World Bank“Farmers’ incomes doubled, employment diversified, and the degraded environment was revitalized.” A 2020 study found that the restored watershed had less sedimentation because the soil had stopped eroding as much. The study concluded that terracing and natural vegetation were primarily responsible for this improvement. 

You can watch a 45-minute VPRO documentary about this project, Green Gold (also called Greening the Desert), with cinematographer and ecologist John Liu on YouTube. Short on time? Here’s a 2-minute summary of the project’s results on YouTube.

Jordan’s Permaculture Project

Australian Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute led a ten-year project in Jordan’s Dead Sea Valley to harvest water. The project area was salty, dry, and hot (with daytime temperatures about 122 F). The project leaders worked with the community to dig a large swale, mulch it, and plant its banks with trees and shrubs to shade and stabilize the soil. The swale gathered and distributed a million liters of water several times a year. The result was a resilient, fertile agricultural zone around the swale.

See a 36-minute video, Greening the Desert II, about the project here.  Or, for a quicker look, here’s a 4-minute slide show that charts progress over the project’s 10-year timeline. 

Australia’s Natural Sequence Farming

Australia has suffered badly in recent years due to drought and wildfire. Aussie farmer Peter Andrews developed a method called natural sequence farming to drought-proof the land. Andrews accomplished this by planting weeds and installing ‘leaky weirs’ that slow watercourses and allow water to escape into the ground. This spreading rehydrates the landscape and restores its fertility and vibrance. In a culture where leaks are repaired and weeds are eradicated, natural sequence farming went against the grain. “All we’ve done is reproduce what was a natural process,” said Andrews in a documentary. 

After Andrews’s success on his farm, he helped others transform the barren Mulloon Creek area. The Mulloon Community Landscape Rehydration Project, founded in 2013, included 20 landholders across 23,000 hectares. The land went from dry and degraded to resilient as a result of natural sequence farming.

You can see a half-hour ABC Australia documentaryHope Springs, about natural sequence farming, and an ABC Australia article about the Mulloon Creek project.

Eco-Machines for the Sinai?

Ties Van der Hoeven, founder of The Weather Makers Holistic Engineering, wants to transform the Sinai Peninsula from barren to fertile, using the type of terracing that succeeded in China’s Loess Plateau to capture rainwater. Like the Loess Plateau, the Sinai Peninsula was once green and fertile but became a desert due to unsustainable land-use practices. 

Because the Sinai is so short on rain, the Weather Makers have added ‘eco-machines,’ basically a series of clear-sided barrels under a plastic greenhouse. Saltwater is evaporated and condensed as freshwater, which then irrigates the plants. The barrels are connected, so water flows between them, mingling their ecosystems like little ponds. The barrels grow algae, plants, bacteria, fungi, worms, insects, and fish, writes Steve Rose in this story in The Guardian

The water in the barrels becomes progressively cleaner, turning saltwater into freshwater. The microbes and worms enrich the soil. The project is currently on hold because of unrest in the Sinai, but it promises transformation and prosperity. 

Similar systems called “living machines” have been piloted in the United States to treat wastewater. See where using this interactive map