Seawater greenhouses, solar power plants and other new green technologies will be brought together in Jordan in an attempt to turn its desert into a producer of crops, fresh water and electricity.
The governments of Jordan and Norway signed an agreement last month (11 January) to build a 20-hectare demonstration centre near Aqaba on the Red Sea. They will work with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) and the Sahara Forest Project (SFP), an environmental technology group based in Norway, to start building the centre in 2012, and expect it to be operating by 2015.
The project would channel sea water into the desert where 'greenhouses' would be able to grow crops without any need to pipe fresh water. This is achieved by evaporating the seawater on grilles at the entrance to the greenhouse so that the air which is entering becomes moist and cool. As it leaves the greenhouse the air is then exposed to heating and cooling, at the end of which pure water condenses out and can be used to water the greenhouse crops.
The concentrated solar power plant, which uses the sun's heat to create steam that drives a turbine to produce electricity, would power the greenhouse and in turn be cooled by greenhouse water.
'The Jordanian government supports investing in such technologies that could help save water in a country suffering water scarcity,' Mohammed S. Turk, chief executive officer of the Aqaba Development Corporation (ADC), told SciDev.Net. He said the project would provide a cheaper way to desalinate water for use in desert land reclamation than current desalination technologies, but added that the 'feasibility studies that will be done on it will show if it will be successful in Jordan or not'.
'This project will face many challenges, such as cost, expandability, sustainability and system reliability in sometimes harsh desert conditions in Jordan,' Issa Batarseh, president of the Princess Sumaya University for Technology, told SciDev.Net.
According to Batarseh, there are two further advantages for Jordan in hosting such a project. The first is that it will raise public awareness about green technology. The second is the opportunity it will provide for Jordanian engineers and researchers to gain hands-on experience and the expertise needed to make these technologies suitable for large-scale production.
'I expect this system to be very expensive in capital cost, but it might prove to be profitable in the long run,' said Anwar M. Battikhi, professor of soil physics and irrigation at the University of Jordan. 'Instead of conventional crops, like tomatoes, cucumber and watermelon … the centre would plant profitable crops, like strawberries, flowers and hybrid seed, aimed for export to Western markets.'
According to the agreement, Jordan will provide the 20-hectare site in the Aqaba governorate, 360 kilometres south of the capital, Amman, and a corridor to pipe sea water from the Red Sea, and Norway will provide US$600,000 for three feasibility studies. Further investment from the private sector is also expected for the construction of the demonstration centre.
If the project is economically successful, the Aqaba authorities will provide another 200 hectares for expansion, Turk said.
The world's first commercial example of a seawater greenhouse, a 2,000-square-metre unit in Port Augusta, Australia, harvested its first crop of tomatoes in December.