Flooding the Qattara Depression

Source: cheesy42, http://www.flickr.com/photos/cheesy42/464081947/in/set-72157607020706612/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

A barren 18 000 km2 sand-and-salt bed 133 metres below sea level in the heart of the Libyan Desert probably would not get the average person to think about hydroelectricity. Scientists, academics, and even the CIA, however, have been thinking about flooding Egypt’s Qattara Depression for the past century. Jules Verne even wrote a book about the idea of flooding a low-lying portion of the Sahara in order to create an inland sea for economic benefit back in 1905. How could one go about flooding the desert? Where would the water come from? Wouldn’t it eventually evaporate in the heat of the desert? And what would be the purpose of such a reservoir?


The key to the Qattara Depression as a spot for power generation is its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. Despite being so far below sea level and in a desert, it actually isn’t too far away from the sea; about 65 kilometres. If one could somehow dredge a 65-kilometre channel from the Mediterranean down into the Qattara, the 133-metre drop would be substantial enough to have a quite a bit of water pour down into the depression. As the water headed downhill, it could pass through sets of penstocks, generating hydroelectric power at each structure. There would only have to be one small rise in elevation to be tunnelled through. To keep the new inland sea going in the desert heat, a flow approximately half that of Niagara Falls would have to be generated in order to combat evaporation. Such a flow would steadily generate 1 000 megawatts of power, a very useful thing in a country with a rapidly growing population such as Egypt which is over-dependent on the Aswan Dam for power despite the inconsistent flows of the Nile and the need to use Nile water for agricultural purposes. As well, this would provide a new recreation and vacation destination, and perhaps even increase oil production in the area currently unfeasible due to the soft ground.

The hydroelectric potential of the Qattara was first noted in 1912 by the German geographer Albrecht Penk, and was first studied thoroughly in 1927 by Dr. John Ball, technical adviser to the Geological Survey Department of Egypt. Studying the formation of reservoirs at 50, 60, and 70 metres below sea level, Ball arrived at an optimal lake level of 50 metres below sea level taking into account climatic changes, evaporation, seepage, minor transmission losses, and the lowest cost per kW installed. Excess flow could be pumped into a separate reservoir that would supplement power generation during times of peak use.


Various proposed channels from the Mediterranean Sea to a Qattara reservoir. Line D near Alamein was determined by Ball to be the optimal inflow location with regards to terrain condition and distance from the sea. Source: http://unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/80858e/80858E1j.gif.


A Qattara Depression electric power supply scheme. Source: http://unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/80858e/80858E1i.gif.

The project was next revisited in 1957 by the Central Intelligence Agency, who recommended it to Egyptian president Gamal Abder Nasser as a way to alter the interior climate and generate power while providing jobs for Palestinian workers, but this was never followed up with any action. The idea experienced its greatest level interest in the 1970s and 1980s, where numerous papers were published on the effects and feasibility of flooding the Qattara. For example, Friedrich Bassler proposed a scheme in 1975 based upon hydro-solar and pumped storage generated by two tunnels. Water flowage would be generated from tunnels via evaporation-induced flow:


Bassler’s tunnel plan. Source: http://unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/80858e/80858E1k.gif.

The level of the lake would be 62.5 metres below sea level, and would take around 35 years to fill using the tunnels. Bassler’s second plan was similar but instead would use an open canal much like Ball’s channel plan. Where Bassler differed was that his planned called for the canal to be built using nuclear blasting, which would be unthinkable today, one would hope. Modern boring technology would certainly be able to handle the task.

Currently, the Qattara is home to various fauna such as gerbils, cheetahs, hares, foxes, and gazelles, as well the occasional acacia grove surviving on groundwater. A saltwater reservoir in the Qattara would not be so rich in life. With the inflow into the lake consisting entirely of saltwater, the salt concentration levels in the water would continually be increasing; eventually, the salt concentration would be similar to that of the Dead Sea, ensuring the new lake would be devoid of macroscopic life. The area surrounding the lake, however, would bloom thanks to an increase in moisture and decrease in temperature generated by the lake’s presence.

In the past few years, talk of the hydroelectric potential of the Qattara has been superseded by that of larger solar-based projects such as the Desertec Industrial Initiative, which would theoretically power all of Europe using massive solar farms throughout North Africa. While the energy potential is far, far greater under the Desertec model (about 100 gigawatts), the cost of such a project would be astronomical.

Further Reading

Ball, J. (1933). The Qattara Depression of the Libyan Desert and the possibility of its utilization for power-production. The Geographical Journal 82(4): 298-314.

Berrahmouni, N. and N. Burgess (2001). Saharan halophytics (PA0905). Ecoregions – World Wildlife Fund. Available at http://www.worldwildlife.org/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial/pa/pa0905_full.html. Accessed 17 November 2010.

Black, R. (2009). Desert dreams of the solar age. BBC News, 13 July 2009. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/richardblack/2009/07/as_regularly_as_one_hour.html. Accessed 18 November 2010.

Cocks, F.H. (2009). Going with the Flow: Water, Dams and Hydropower. In Energy Demand and Climate Change: Issues and Resolutions, 100-102. Weinheim, B.-W.: Wiley-VCH.

Ibrahim, F.N. (1982). Ecological and economic problems of the Qattara-depression project, Egypt. GeoJournal 6(1): 88-89. Available at http://www.springerlink.com/content/p162768711165022/. Accessed 18 November 2010.

Murakami, M. (1995). Mediterranean-Qattara solar-hydro and pumped-storage development. In Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies. Tokyo: United Nations University Press. Available at http://unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/80858e/80858E0a.htm. Accessed 18 November 2010.

Murray, J.J. (1975). Hydroelectric power generation and mineral recovery in the Qattara Depression of Egypt. Energy 4(3): 463-468.

Segal, M. et al. (1983). On Climatic Changes Due to a Deliberate Flooding of the Qattara Depression (Egypt). Climatic Change 5: 73-83. Available at http://www.springerlink.com/content/q771849x20120898/fulltext.pdf. Accessed 18 November 2010.

Verne, J. (1905) (2001). Invasion of the Sea. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

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13 thoughts on “Flooding the Qattara Depression

  • If they can find a method of desalinization prior to flooding the desert it would be a viable project and could benefit not only Egypt but also Libya. I am concerned that they are considering pumping ocean water into the desert which they already have stated will produce ever increasing salt levels as the water evaporates. This plan would merely create a new salt dome, albeit a wet salt dome. While the water would immediately be a wonderful addition, the future environmental impact could be unimaginable and impossible to overcome centuries out.

  • sincere benevolence dictates that "instead of using the 65 KM close-by salty sea water" the project ought to divert the Nile water from being wasted in the Mediterranean sea to the QATTARA Depression, thus creating a sweat water lake with leveled agriculture & generating electricity for everyone!

  • It seems to me that if they filled the depression by using a tunnel at the deepest part of the depression then dug a channel at the surface it would cause a current to form and as the water evaporated would move the salt back out into the meditaranian sea. The evaporation then would fall later as rain hopefully on the rest of the desert causing a trasformation to a productive land.

  • As link in my name shows, I have been thinking this possibility for years, but not just for Qattara Depression, for other areas of Sahara too.

    +Electricity gained by water going trough tunnel(s) (or if tunnel is too hard to dig into desert, through pipes on surface of desert, where water would be pumped at coast using solar/wind electricity).

    +"Oasis" caused by this water-mass would be huge, providing palm-tree filled land around it for agricultural/fishing and living purposes, travelling and recreational use.

    +Huge amount of water vaporization would cause rains and so desert to bloom, as seeds of plants in sand demand only little water to get growth started, and those plants are very recilliant to lack of water even for longer periods of time.

    -Concentration of salt at pool. Eventhough sand filters out salt, and so "oasis" could have fresh-water wells meters from shore of pool, cumulation of salt would cause problems.

    As I see it, only advanced system that would filter salt from water, or re-directing part of Nile delta´s water to Qattara, are only solutions.

  • perhaps a new breed of algae might be developed which turns the salt into fuel.

  • Actually, if you built desalination plants at the head water of the tunnel / canal which fed the new lake / sea, then there would be the benefits of fishing, agriculture, tourism etc as well as hydro electricity.

    As it is, there would be the same possibility for tourism (albeit no fishing) etc that the dead sea enjoys. The increased rainfall and lower temperatures in the highlands around the basin (evaporated sea water), would increase rainfall and thus agriculture in marginal areas.

    I have never understood why the Egyptian Government has consistently failed to start the scheme … there would also be employment opportunities (both skilled and unskilled) which would be a boon in a country struggling to create jobs.

    I accept that initially there would be some environmental habitat destruction, but surely that would very quickly be more than compensated for by the upgraded local environment once the scheme matured?

    NB: I understand that the Israeli government has considered a similar scheme in to the Dead Sea from the Med.

  • Satellite imagery indicates a very ancient Nile delta and coastline. Why flood this basin with more salt? What would become of the fresh water oasis in Qattara?

  • With rising ocean levels I think we should open up a large channel and flood it to sea level than channel water from the Nile to give it a fresh water feed. Egypt could turn the new body of water into a aquaculture tuna farm and start a new industry for its people and they would have a bunch of new prime coastal real estate to work with.

  • Thanks for a good overview.

    Also believe that rising ocean levels could be mitigated by creating a salt water lake in the qattara depression. As the annual rate of rising ocean levels is well above 1 mm each year currently, the man made lake (water volume is expected to match Lake Ontario in the US) would ideally mean constant ocean levels for a few years while the lake is forming (water volume in man made lake equals 3 mm decrease in ocean levels).
    If the flow of water in the canal is stopped assume the lake will dry due to evaporation in a decade or so. Then the lake could be "filled up" again. Wind direction (based on statistics for airport Mesra Matruh) is dominated by winds coming from north in the summer so humidity from the lake should therefore not return as rain into the mediterranean.
    Rising sea levels need to addressed soon and a canal seems to be a concrete feasible measure that have a positive impact.

    Calculation above is based on data from "wikki" and "www.windfinder.com".
    Just to put this into perspective: sea level rise of 1 mm each year equals a water volume of 11500 cubic meters each second. So the "canal/river" should have dimensions to match; width of 100 meters and a depth of 10 meters at least to be able to fill the lake "quickly".

    Do you find some obvious mistake in my reasoning?
    Cost would be great and maybe only possible to justify through hydroelectric generation. My point though is that the mitigation of rising sea level could maybe be enough reason for creating a man made lake.

  • stupid is as stupid does !!

    the article summed up the unintended consequences of such man made stupidity.. the suggested lake would eventually kill the current fauna and flora, not even microscopic organisms would be able to survive the soaring salinity,then the article contradicts itself "….The area surrounding the lake, however, would bloom thanks to an increase in moisture and decrease in temperature generated by the lake’s presence", well the 'dead sea' still exist today and it is a failed existence. is the area around the already existing dead sea "moist" or "blooming"???
    the answer is a BIG FAT NO!!!

    It's a dying geological structure,rapidly evaporating with progressively increasing salinity and surrounded by dry arid deserts, it has NOT improved the 'surrounding area or made it bloom"!.. Despite being at more northerly latitude and thus more temperate climate than the current location of disaster they are trying to create..

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