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