NASA astronaut Alfred Worden was orbiting the moon aboard Apollo 15, approximately 238,863 miles from a giant dry lake in northern Sudan, when he told Mission Control, “After the King’s training, I feel like I’ve been here before.”
Worden was not thanking Elvis, but rather AAPG member Farouk El-Baz , the man who helped him prepare for the mission.
El-Baz laughs when reminded of the story, saying the nickname comes from Egyptian King Farouk, as he kidded the astronauts, “I am the King, but I had to thin out in hard times!”
Farouk El-Baz, an internationally recognized award-winning geologist and humanitarian, is also a research professor, an adviser to presidents and prime ministers and even the namesake of a shuttlecraft on Star Trek.
The King’s objectives now: Bringing peace to Darfur.
How? His idea is deceptively simple and can be summed in one word: water.
El-Baz believes that the provision of water to all who need it, in addition to resources that can be used for economic (agriculture and agro-industries) purposes, can ease the pressures that are contributing to a brutally violent war there and provide stability to the entire country.
Restoring peace and repairing the cultural, political and tribal dysfunction in Sudan may seem a long way from – and perhaps more difficult than – conquering the moon’s landscape, but Farouk El-Baz is an optimist with a peculiar enthusiasm for the power of science.
“The environment of doing so changes in time and place,” he said, “but the objectives must remain the same.”
His plan is to dig 1,000 wells in the ancient Megalake in the northern Darfur region, which he hopes will bring life-sustaining water to the people of Sudan and in the process maybe – just maybe – establish peace and economic security in the region.
The problems in the Darfur region of Sudan may be an insurmountable, incomprehensible quagmire, but El-Baz believes this initiative – called “1,000 Wells for Darfur” – is where to start.
A Personal Calling
El-Baz, like millions around the world, has been deeply troubled by the tragedy in Darfur.
Unlike millions around the world, he has many Sudanese friends, so the desire to help isn’t just philosophical, ideological or even only as a humanitarian. It is personal.
And so, “as a private citizen geologist,” he looked for a way to help.
It’s not the first time his training as a geologist went far beyond the parameters of his discipline.
El-Baz, the 1996 Michel T. Halbouty Human Needs Award winner and director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing, is well known as a pioneer in the application of space-borne data to ground-water exploration.
He has successfully applied these methods in the arid lands of Egypt, Somalia, Oman and the U.A.E.
Those who know and have worked with him say one of his great appeals is his ability to simplify complex issues for discussion among non-scientists – something that may be crucial now that he has his sights on Sudan.
Citing the United Nations’ Environment Program (UNEP) report “Sudan Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment” – published earlier this year, which concluded that chronically sparse rainfall over the past two decades there has fractured the century’s old harmonious relationship forged between farmers and nomadic herdsmen – El-Baz believes the time is right for the initiative.
“Access to fresh water is essential for refugee survival, will help the peace process and provide the necessary resources for the much needed economic development in Darfur,” he said.
“When our research resulted in unveiling boundaries of the ancient lake, I thought it was my duty to make that known in Sudan,” he said.
“I came up with the notion of 1,000 wells to underscore the scale and importance of the find.”
Hope for Darfur
He comes to the project with a lot of knowledge and experience: El-Baz has published or edited 12 books, written more than 200 articles and is a Fellow and Council member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS). He represents the Academy at the Non-Governmental Unit of the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations and was appointed senior adviser to the World Bank/UN World Commission on Water for the 21st Century.
More specifically, he has worked in many Middle Eastern and African nations; he knows the land, literally and figuratively, and knows how to talk to leaders who don’t always listen.
So when El-Baz put forth the initiative to Sudanese President Omar Ahmad al-Bashir, the reception wasn’t surprising.
“After completion of our research and preparation of the results for publication, I elected to convey this to the Sudan government,” he said. “Upon arrival in Khartoum, I met with the president (al-Bashir) and he had the minister of water and other officials in for the meeting. It was then that I suggested the initiative of ‘1,000 Wells For Darfur.’
“He embraced it and asked me to announce it during my lecture later that day.”
El-Baz says the meeting was especially productive not only because of the cooperation of the Sudanese government, but because of the Egyptians’ cooperation as well.
“When I returned through Cairo, I conveyed the results to the minister of water resources of Egypt (M. Abu-Zeid, a friend) and asked if the Egyptian government would pledge 10 wells as a gift from Egypt to the people of Darfur,” he said.
That pledge soon became 20 wells.
El-Baz believes the water issue in Sudan generally and the Darfur region specifically is not only the source of possible peace, it is one of the origins of the current conflict that has grabbed international headlines.
“The attacks on sedentary farmers by nomadic tribes were to shove them back to whence they came ... farther south,” El-Baz said, “the reason being their perception that they have rights to the water that was horded by the farmers.
“Thus, water rights became the political issue.”
When asked if the wells, once completed, could really have an effect on the suffering in Darfur, El-Baz said: “Absolutely – and I stated that in both meetings with the president of Sudan and the secretary general of the UN. The idea is to drill all over the place for all in need of water.”
And with UN involvement, El-Baz believes, “the world would have proper accountability of the funds.”
Specifically, El-Baz says that research places the highest level of the Megalake in northern Darfur to be at 573 meters above sea level. Further, according to the researchers, the dry lake’s surface, which is covered by wind-blown sand, occupies an area of 30,750 square kilometers (about the size of Lake Erie). During humid climate phases in the past, it would have contained approximately 2,530 km ³ of water when full. This mapping, by radar data, was done at Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing, which was established by El-Baz in 1986.
El-Baz believes there is no way of assuring whether, in fact, there is water, how deep it is or how much dissolved salts are in it until the drilling of exploration wells begins – but he adds that the water “probably” will be at about 100 meters depth.
“One thing is certain – much of the lake’s water would have seeped through the sandstone substrate to accumulate as groundwater,” he said. “As proven earlier in southwest Egypt, just northeast of Darfur, a similar former lake is underlain by vast amounts of groundwater at about 100 meters below the surface.”
El-Baz previously identified the East Uweinat Basin in southwestern Egypt, where the groundwater rises to 25 meters below the surface. This resulted in the drilling of over 500 wells that can irrigate up to 150,000 acres of highly successful agricultural farms where wheat and other essential crops are grown.
The next step for “1,000 Wells for Darfur” is the identification of the best locations for the initial batch of 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,” he said.
While the initiative is still in the preliminary planning stage, El-Baz says he hopes to see contributions from both the United Nations and the United States. El-Baz said if he had to guess, the budget would not exceed $1 billion.
Aware that some might be dubious of the cooperation of the Sudanese government, El-Baz replied:
“From first-hand experience, and my personal meetings there, I am convinced that the government officials can be trusted to allow the project to go through, and to safeguard it once it does.”
It is tough to be an optimist in a country like Sudan, but El-Baz talks about the smiles he saw when the initiative was first announced.
“To me, science is to search for the truth and to disseminate it among people.”
First water, the King seems to be saying; then, maybe, peace.
“I actually hope that there will be much more than 1,000 wells in the final analysis.”