A Massive Oasis Could Ease Suffering in Darfur

Scientist says he's found an oasis, but will Khartoum seize control?

Mar. 26, 2008— -- In Darfur, survival is a constant struggle. Poverty, war, violence, and thirst are crushing facts of daily life.

In recent years, the violence and poverty in the region have made headlines and energized activists around the world, but the root of Darfur's problems may be something most of us take for granted — water.

"We desperately need water," a local man named Abdullah told ABC News at a rare oasis in El Fasher, the capital of northern Darfur, where he showed us he was collecting water to take back to his village and sell. "Where people live there is no local water and we have no way to drill wells," he said.

Water in the region is so scarce that some villagers have to travel for hours to reach the nearest well. This trek can often be dangerous — thousands of women have been beaten and raped while searching for water.

Egyptian-American geologist Farouk El Baz hopes to change all of this. El Baz is the Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, and an expert at radar topography — a scientific technique he has used to find out what lies below the land's surface.

For the last three years, El Baz has been scrutinizing radar images from satellites and a space shuttle mission, hoping to find water under the miles of sand in Darfur.

Now he believes he has found a massive lake, the size of Lake Erie, hidden under the desert. El Baz believes this discovery means a possibility for peace in the region lies buried beneath the desert.

This is not the first time El Baz has made a groundbreaking discovery through the use of radar topography.

In the 1960s, for example, he used this technique to select landing spots for Apollo 11, helping American Astronauts land safely on the moon. And in the 1990s, El Baz discovered water deep under the sands of Egypt and Libya, where he turned the desert into fertile farmland.

He hopes to have the same impact in Darfur, where over 200,000 people have been killed in the country's civil war and 2.5 million displaced.

In addition to the mega lake he has discovered, El Baz believes there are many other sites beneath the desert that have the potential to be drilled for water.

"This whole place is water laden," he said, despite its arid appearance.

We accompanied El Baz on his first site visit to Sudan, where he met with regional leaders and traveled hundreds of miles to see and feel the sand and select sites for immediate drilling.

"If you want water in the desert go to the place that is the driest and where there are the most sand dunes," he explained of his method. "The largest accumulation of sand is where you will find water underneath."

And sure enough, even in the driest of places, it became clear that water had once flowed through these desert plains. Even though water had not been at this site for over 200 years, we found a shell lying in the sand. Surprising discoveries like these are exciting for El Baz because they are proof that there is water here as he has predicted.

El Baz has presented his findings to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the President of Sudan and the Government of Egypt. All have agreed to commit funds to drill wells.

But there is concern about how the Sudanese Government, in Khartoum, will control the water once it is brought to the surface.

"If this water resource is used as a way of rewarding Khartoum's friends, punishing its enemies, then that water will be a source of conflict and not a source of peace," says Alex De Waal, a Fellow at Harvard's Global Equity Initiative.

El Baz firmly believes that more water will help tame, not enflame, the violence here. "And the problems will dissipate slowly but surely."

Once all the preliminary testing is taken care of, drilling into the mega- lake should begin late this year. El Baz's dream is that enough money will be raised to drill 1,000 wells, creating enough water to go around and alleviating the struggle for resources which has caused so much pain.

"We have an opportunity to put science in the service of humanity. This is helping to resolve a humanitarian crisis, this is a greater cause," he says. "[We can] end a lot of suffering."

That is exactly what the people of this vast desert are hoping for.

Click HERE to learn more about the "1,000 Wells for Darfur" project.