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Underground Lakebed Sparks Hope for Darfur

A Sudanese woman carries bricks near a refugee camp in Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region.  Darfur is one of the driest places on Earth. In recent years, more than 200,000 people have died there due to a conflict rooted partly in disputes over water.
Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
A Sudanese woman carries bricks near a refugee camp in Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region. Darfur is one of the driest places on Earth. In recent years, more than 200,000 people have died there due to a conflict rooted partly in disputes over water.

Remote sensing experts say they may have found a huge reservoir of water underneath one of the driest and most troubled places in the world. The so-called "mega-lake" was found beneath Darfur, in western Sudan. In recent years, more than 200,000 people have died in conflicts in Dafur. These conflicts are partly due to disputes over water and other natural resources.

Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, found the buried lakebed — the size of Massachusetts — while examining satellite maps of underground rock formations in western Sudan.

"It's one of the driest places on Earth," said El-Baz. "In some places there, it rains only once every 20 to 50 years."

El-Baz says the lakebed is essentially a giant bowl of sandstone. The satellite maps even show the rivers that fed this giant lake. And inside the lake, like bathtub rings, you see the lines that once marked the surface of the water.

El-Baz thinks the water that was once above this sandstone seeped down through it several thousand years ago. He believes that it's now sitting underneath the buried lake bed, above a layer of impervious rock.

El-Baz has found these kinds of buried lakes in the past. Wells drilled into some of them are pulling up water that is being used to irrigate farm fields in the Middle East. After looking at satellite photos of the Darfur mega-lake, the president of Sudan endorsed what's basically a call for global aid that would help pay for exploratory wells. Egypt has agreed to drill 20 of these wells. The United Nations will drill several more.

Humanitarian groups that have been working to end the conflict in Darfur hope these wells all hit the jack pot. Some of them think water from these wells could help ease tensions in the region.

"It could be a first step towards a lasting peace," said Hafiz Mohammed of Justice Africa.

Skeptical geologists note that many buried lakebeds have turned out to have no water underneath them. And Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute says he has a broader worry.

"It's true that the conflict in Darfur was partly caused by disputes over water and other natural resources," said Gleick. "But it's also rooted in more deeply seated racial and religious fights. I love the idea of drilling for water in this region... but I do not think it's likely to end the conflict."

A paper describing the find under Darfur will be published soon in the Journal of Remote Sensing.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Nielsen
John Nielsen covers environmental issues for NPR. His reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition. He also prepares documentaries for the NPR/National Geographic Radio Expeditions series, which is heard regularly on Morning Edition. Nielsen also occasionally serves as the substitute host for several NPR News programs.