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Fish Farms and Solar Energy Can Aid Arid Regions

November 11, 2008

A new United Nations report released Tuesday says ecotourism, solar energy, and even fish farms can create new jobs in arid regions of developing nations suffering from scarce supplies of water.

Data from the U.N. shows that drylands now cover 40 percent of the global land area, and are home to nearly a third of the world’s population, 90 percent of whom live in developing countries.  The U.N.’s Climate Panel predicts that global warming will strain water supplies and cause deserts to spread.

But the four-year study of drylands in eight nations found that people could shift to less water-intensive farming and establish new businesses, aided at times by microcredits, to contend with the changing climate.

“We have to think outside the box, look at options where dependence on water resources is much lower,” Zafar Adeel, a co-author and director of the U.N. University’s International Network on Water, Environment and Health (INWEH), told Reuters in a telephone interview.

“Agriculture takes up to 70 to 90 percent of freshwater supply in drylands,” he said, citing a study entitled “People in Marginal Drylands”.

One project near Pakistan’s Cholistan desert showed that untapped brackish water could be used for fish farming, providing a new source of protein for local people that could also be sold in nearby towns.

Ponds used for “arid aquaculture”, using inland fish able to survive in water with high levels of salt, produced more food than would have resulted had the same volume of water been used to irrigate fields.

“If you can use the water for different purposes you multiply the benefits,” Thomas Schaaf, a co-author and head of the Ecological Sciences and Biodiversity section at UNESCO, told Reuters.

Pond sludge could be used as fertilizer, he added.

In a dryland region of Inner Mongolia in China, shifting from cattle herding to chicken farming increased incomes and preserved vegetation from over-grazing.

“Instead of putting grasslands into cattle meat it was much better to put it into chicken meat,” Richard Thomas, deputy head of INWEH, told Reuters.

A separate project in Tunisia is working to develop ecotourism on the outskirts of the Sahara desert.  And in Jordan, people are making “dryland soaps” based on olive oil and fragrances from local plants such as pomegranate, lavender, geranium and mint.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, solar panels are being used to power a desalination plant, delivering drinking water from underground sources.  As a spinoff to that project, Egypt has started manufacturing solar-powered desalination units for use in other places, such as coastal areas where salty water from the Mediterranean often makes its way into groundwater.

Adeel said the examples were intended to counter pessimism about desertification blamed on global warming.

“When you paint a very gloomy picture the response is a non-response or paralysis at a policy level,” he said.

“We hope … some of these success stories lead to a larger scale national response.”

Projects will be launched in India, Bolivia and Burkina Faso beginning in 2009.

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