The Phoenix of Qattara – Reclaiming the deserts.

The Qattara depression
The Qattara depression

Egypt – To most westerners any mention of the Qattara depression take their minds off to the heady days of autumn 1942 and the defeat of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps at the second battle of El Alamein. Which took place over a 50 kilometre front between the Mediterranean sea and the impassable Qattara depression. The only other salient point that the casual observer might have grasped is that the Qattara depression is made up of impassable salt marshes, salt flats and high cliffs.

When you put together the combination of salt flats, salt marshes, cliffs and a depression, in the middle of a desert, then the educated persons mind starts to think of dried up lakes and inland seas. An even more enquiring mind might even ask the question when and why did the lake or inland sea cease to be a lake or sea and become salt flats and marshes. An environmental scientist would even ask how did the loss of an inland sea affect the climate of the Sahara desert? Or put more logically what was the climate around the inland sea like? An engineer would ask what would it take to refill the inland sea and keep it full?

In answer to the environmental scientists question. Well in simplistic terms a large body of water tends to lower average temperature, and increase the rainfall. It raises the humidity of the air downwind of the lake or sea, leading to increased rainfall. Increased rainfall releases the potential for life to flourish that is kept dormant in deserts.

It is an interesting statistic that more people drown in flash floods in the Sahara desert than die of dehydration. This tells us that there is rainfall, but the rain waters are channelled away before life can make use of it.

So Let’s refill the Qattara sea

This has to be such a good idea, with so many benefits’ for Egyptian economy, that it has to have been thought of before. Why hasn’t it this project been done?

It has and has been named the The Qattara Depression Project. The very first Plans to use the Qattara Depression for the generation of electricity date back to 1912 from Berlin geographer Professor Penck.

Next came Dr John Ball in 1927 who discussed the project in more detail. Dr. Ball also made the first preliminary calculations on filling rate, electricity production and salinity.

In 1957 the CIA was looking for a way of levering President Nasser out of the arms of the Russians. This faded into the background with the next president.

From 1964 on a Prof. Friedrich Bassler led the international “Board of Advisers” which was responsible for planning and financing activities of the project. The project then foundered on the idea that digging a 50km canal would be too expensive.

Next came the idea of using 213 nuclear weapons to blast a canal. An idea originally proposed in the atoms for peace program. It isn’t hard to work out that that is way too expensive too, without the added risk of nuclear contamination or the theft of one or more of the 1.5 megaton devices by the likes of Al Qaida.

Then there is the thorny issue of the “Devils Gardens” the remaining minefields and unexploded ordinance leftover from world Monty’s great victory. The canal would have to be dug right through the minefields.

As I understand it when approached for a contribution towards de-mining the battle site, both the UK and German Governments say go swivel on it. It is not our problem.

Governments soon gave up interest. Every so often a team picks up the project kick round a few ideas then kicks it into touch.

OK so what are you thinking?

The shortest route from the Mediterranean sea to the Qattara depression is from El Alamein to the Deir el Shein at the west tip of Ruweisat ridge then head due south to the Deir Alinda and on to Qattara depression above the Moghra oasis .

So the proposal is to build a 100 meter wide and 60 meter deep canal to link the Qattara depression and the Mediterranean sea along the shortest route. I also propose to build a city, the Arabic for the “Phoenix of Qattara”, complete with a deep water port at the edge of Qattara at sea level. This port would be separated from the Qattara by lock gates. The port basin serves another purpose. That of a reservoir of water used to drive electrical generation turbines. The turbines would be at Low tide level and the turbine outlet pipes descending the base of cliffs creating the water pressure to drive the turbines. Sluices in the outlet pipes would control the flow rate so that the electrical generation remains constant. Excess water not used for electrical generation would also be diverted to the bottom of the cliffs through giant pipes. This may seem like spending money for spending’s sake, but the idea is not to destroy by under mining the cliffs and the salt pan floor. Too much splash would increase the rate of evaporation due to the slash creating an aerosol of water.

It is important to note that the canal will be subject to the tides so that sides of the canal must be able to cope with the highest tide of the year.

As the Main East West road and rail links would be severed by the canal, a pair of major bridges would need building preferably before the canal is dug.

Ok so what about the mine fields and unexploded ordinance I hear you ask. Good point. If the UK and Germany want any orders for turbines and power transmission equipment, then the can pay for the de mining. Turbines and transmission equipment would be cheaper from Russia or China. It’s a global market.

How long will it take?

Once the Canal is built and the deep water port and electrical generation equipment is up and running it will take up to 10 years to get the water level in the Qattara sea to 60 Meters below sea level. The aim is to get the Qattara sea to within 20 meters of sea level. The northern and western shoreline are lined by cliffs. It is planned to stabilise the eastern and Southern shoreline by planting mangrove forests/ mangrove swamps. Mangroves are saline tolerant and help keep the water on the land. The saline conditions tolerated by various mangrove species range from brackish water, through pure seawater (30 to 40 ppt), to water concentrated by evaporation to over twice the salinity of ocean seawater (up to 90 ppt).

It is hoped that the water flowing into the Qattara sea will bring with it sea life fish, sea weed, shellfish and algae. Initially the Qattara Sea would be too salty for life to survive. Although the Qattara sea will always be of a higher salinity than normal sea water, as the volume of sea water introduced to the sea the salinity will drop to a level that sea life will tolerate and thrive in.

A project will be established to manage the introduction of sea life to the Qattara sea so that villages on the shoreline can establishing a sustainable fishing industry. Whilst another would be to introduce trees to suitable arias so that any rainfall will tend to stay on the land and unlock the potential life from the desert. Trees also encourage rainfall. Which helps the trees establish themselves and expand the aria of tree coverage.

How would it be Financed?

The big problem with big capital projects is the finance. Western banks demand rip off interest rates, so should be avoided if at all possible. That leaves Russia, China and the Islamic world. I believe that the best way would be to borrow from the Islamic banks. Russia and China have their own agendas. It’s best not to get involved in superpower bust-up.

A secondary form of financing would be through the rents and leases of the people and businesses who are attracted to the Phoenix of Qattara.

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Author: Dr Suusi Watson

Editor of the Bastard

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