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Ancient Lake Offers Hope for Darfur's Future

Deep below the troubled and arid land of Sudan’s Darfur region are the remnants of an ancient lake. Scientists say while the lake may have disappeared thousands of years ago, the discovery offers hope of relieving water shortages there today.

The ancient lake was the size of Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes in the United States. Or to put it another way, it was as big as the US state of Massachusetts. The lake covered just about all of Northern Darfur State, one of three states making up the Darfur region. Scientists found it using satellite radar.

Dr. Farouk El-Baz is director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University. He says Darfur’s environment was a very different place in ancient times.

“We have realized that the deserts of today were not like that in the past. They actually hosted much kinder climates and there were rivers and streams. There were lakes and therefore there was a great deal of vegetation, grasses and some trees. And if there was that much vegetation, there were animals, there were fish. And because of the animals and plants there was also man,” he says.

When was Darfur this lush?

“The last wet period was between 5,000 years ago and 11,000 years ago. We do not know exact dates, but this is close enough,” he says.

Dr. El-Baz says since water existed in the region for tens of thousands of years, it’s likely much of that water seeped down deep below the surface.

“Some of that water would still be there as ground water, which means that this is a signal to the people in Darfur that there may be plenty of water down there to resolve many of the real problems,” he says.

Darfur is the scene of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Four years of war between government forces and rebels have led to the killing of at least 200,000 people, the displacement of millions of others and charges of genocide. The conflict is also creating instability in neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic.

Dr. El-Baz says over the last 20 years there have been two prolonged periods of drought, adding to tensions in Darfur. Over time, as many as 1,000 wells may be dug offering pure drinking water to Arabs and black Africans alike.

“Most of the water that is produced today is from hand-dug wells that are only a few to tens of meters deep. And that water is really surface water. It’s likely to be polluted from the surface materials and anything else on the surface. And it might also contain a bit of salt and sand. But the water that we’re talking about would have had time to seep right through and be in porous layers down below that are clean, away from whatever is happening on the surface and totally unpolluted,” he says.

The Boston University scientist began his research of deserts decades ago after working on the US Apollo program, which put men on the moon.

“One of the most important jobs I had was helping in the selection of landing sites. And the selection of landing sites for the astronauts to land upon on the moon depended on geological interpretation of pictures, photographs taken before the astronauts went. So we began to learn how does on interpret the terrain from pictures, especially over a place that you’ve never been to,” he says.

Scientists are now determining the best sites to drill the first wells.