Greening the Desert 3, the Sinai Edition

Once again, you are probably asking, why is Dr. Becky suddenly blogging about all of these ecological projects? What does this have to do with health and medicine?

The first reason I'm writing this "greening the desert" series is that we have been witnessing ever more severe climate disasters over the last several years; wildfires, floods, hurricaines, superstorms, heat waves, drought. Combined with the Covid-19 pandemic, it feels a little "end of the world" right now. This Greening the Desert Series is intended to bring not just awareness, but hope.

While my "job" is to help one person at a time improve their health and well being, often the deeper causes of illness and "dis-ease" have to do with access to clean, good quality food, water and housing. On a fundamental level, the sustainable health of every individual depends on the sustainable well-being of the climate and the ecosystem. The repeated disruption and damage caused by droughts, floods, hurricaines, heat waves, super storms, and wildfires has a profound effect on the health of individuals in the communities where they occur. These events, when combined on the scale and frequency we are seeing them at now, also has an impact on health globally. Observing these events has an emotional impact (increasing fear, anxiety, stress, and depression). These events also have larger scale impacts on water, hosing and food security as supply chains are disrupted, power grids struggle, and the economy shifts and spikes unpredictably. Each of these factors have impacts on the heatlh of individuals as well.

Rain, climate and ecology have a huge impact on food security, economics and geo-political trends. Imagine the difference in the risk of conflict between two communities with plenty of food and water vs. two communities who don't have enough food and water. That is a massive oversimplification, but you get the general idea. Knowing that there is a possibility to restore ecosystems, bring back rain and ground water, cool the land, put carbon back in the ground and grow more food seems like an important and hopeful message right now.

OK, so the Sinai project:

This ambitious project is slated to start soon (there is no green yet). Like many of the current deserts on the planet, the Sinai peninsula used to be a grassland with forests, possibly as recently as 1500 years ago (though more likely 3000-5000 years ago). It is assumed that it became a desert due to overgrazing (this is what happened in China and probably many other deserts). The hope is to bring water and plant life back to this barren desert and hopefully even shift the weather patterns, bringing rain to the arid Middle East.

The group of scientists and engineers working on this are called the Weather Makers (named after the book by Tim Flannery). The founding member is Ties van der Hoeven, a Dutch engineer who specializes in large scale dredging projects (he helped build the artificial islands in Dubai). He was contacted by the Egyptian government to see if he could dredge the lagoon on the Sinai peninsula that has become almost completely filled with sediment. Once he started looking at the project, he realized there was a huge opportunity for ecological restoration that went well beyond just restoring the lagoon. Inspired by the work of Geoff Lawton (Greening the Desert: Jordan), and John Liu (Regreening the Desert: China), they are setting out an ambitious plan.

Weather Maker cofounders:

  • Ties van der Hoeven

  • Gijs Bosman and

  • Maddie Akkermans

Essentially they plan to dredge the lagoon, and use that nutrient rich sediment to re-create top soil. Using this re-claimed top soil, they can then begin to re-plant trees and grasses. Vegitation prevents rain from running off the surface of the ground and allows water to sink down and be stored in the soil. This allows for slow, steady evaporation from the soil over time, increasing humidity. Increased humidity eventually leads to rain, more water in the land, more vegitation, more rain, etc.

The other super fascinating part of this is that the water cycle of evaporation and rainfall is part of what generates wind. Re-starting the water cycle in the Sinai has the potential to shift the wind patterns in the whole reigon, bringing moist air and rain to large areas of northern Africa and the Middle East. Can you imagine what kind of impact it would have on eco and geo-politics if the Middle East was no longer a desert? If people there could grow all the food they need, and have abundant water in their local area?

You can find out more about their multistep project here:

Here are the original articles I read about this project:

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