A Conversation with Farouk El-Baz: Finding Water in the Desert

BOSTON—Farouk El-Baz was born in 1938 in the Nile Delta region of Egypt.  At about the same time in Boston, ground was broken on Commonwealth Avenue to make way for the building where his office is now. The Charles Hayden Memorial building, with its impressively gold-edged archway doors, is neighbored by rows of sought-after Victorian town homes. El-Baz’s office is on the fourth floor of the art deco edifice, looking out on the grand boulevard below.

El-Baz, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, got his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Ain Shams University in Cairo before moving to America’s Midwest to study for a master’s degree and Ph.D. in geology at the University of Missouri.  His career has blended space technology with earth science. Since 1986, he has led Boston University’s Center for Remote Sensing, recognized as a NASA center of excellence.

During the 1960s he lead the NASA team that chose the lunar landing sites for the Apollo missions. In his honor, one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation featured a small spacecraft they called “El-Baz”.

The one free space in his large office has a double sofa, a coffee table laden with antiquities and an easy chair across from the sofa. A curio box decorated with mother-of-pearl and other treasures reminds El-Baz of Egypt. He makes three or four trips back to his home country every year. El-Baz spoke to Al-Fanar Media about his hopes for finding water for agriculture in the Sahara and other topics.

What’s the most impressive science going on in the Arab world?

I like what the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology is doing—that’s M.I.T. in Abu Dhabi. They have MIT faculty and MIT-trained staff from the [United Arab Emirates] UAE itself. They also have scads of money to throw around. They’re doing a lot with solar energy, which is surprisingly neglected by a lot of Arab countries. I think solar energy is one of the most important things to be researching right now.

But there are also several initiatives across the western, central and eastern parts of the Arab world that are impressive. Morocco is focusing on science and they’re going about it rather well, the Algerians are doing things with technology and the UAE is interested in space technology. Right now, we have to think of these regions as separate entities. There could be so much more cooperation between Arab countries, but getting visas to travel can take weeks.

Do you hope for more collaboration between Arab countries and institutions?

Pan-Arabism hasn’t been a strong movement since the 1950s. Politically there are a lot of differences between Arab countries, but scientifically we’re the same people. We speak the same language, have similar aims and we could achieve so much more together. It makes sense that there will be more cooperation. I have hope in the younger generation. They don’t seem to take the borders so seriously. I see it here at Boston University: Students come here from all over the Arab world and they suddenly realize they’re one people. The next 50 years will bring more and more scientific collaboration between Arab countries. For example, I believe there will one day be a pan-Arab space agency. [The UAE has announced an unmanned space mission to Mars by 2021.]

What are you working on at the moment?

Agriculture is becoming a domain for scientific research in the Arab world. That’s sort of what I’m working on in my own way. Egypt has been asleep for some 35 years and its resources have been squandered. The government of Egypt has to do something tangible to develop its resources. At the moment agriculture is the number one thing to look at. Egyptians should be able to feed themselves, but right now [the country] borrow huge sums of money to buy food. I’m looking to improve food production in a big way, a sort of green revolution for Egypt. It is ridiculous to borrow money to eat, especially when you consider that with the population growing, every year we borrow more.

How much more food could Egypt produce? Egypt is a large country but agriculture is almost entirely confined to the Nile.

Seven percent of the land is cultivatable in Egypt and that’s also where everyone lives. It’s ridiculous. Using space technology and geology we are finding and suggesting alternatives.

Are you talking about canals out of the Nile?

You don’t need canals. There are pockets of ground water in the desert. I look at satellite images and figure out how the land used to look in the past, when there was rainfall in the region. Africa is moving northwards, at one point it was on the equator where it got a lot of rain and that ancient rain accumulated in places— that’s what we’re looking for. Regular pictures won’t help you do that. We use satellite images and radar images, which penetrate through the land and give a picture of the hard surface beneath the sand that shows the old river channels, which lead to ancient deltas—underground lakes.

Is it wise to make large investments to dig up the desert when there’s only a limited supply of this water?

It’s a finite resource, but my research has shown that one particular area could support agriculture on over a quarter of a million acres for 200 years. In 200 years we’ll figure something out.

Two hundred years doesn’t sound like a long time.

It’s the length of the entire history of the United States! After that area is exhausted they’ll move on to another. In 200 years perhaps we’ll have much more sophisticated and energy-efficient desalination, who knows? There is a lot of government interest in this. I’ve had calls from Egypt and met with President el-Sisi. But it’s not just Egypt; the ambassador of Chad was sat on this couch right here because he wants us to do a ground-water survey of their country.

Of course all of this depends on the economic and political situation, but neither will be stable unless you feed your people.

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