Desert Rose Project – Trees, Water and Food and fuel maybe from the Desert

 Dr. Richard Lawson, M.D. Thursday, 27 November 2008.  Prepared for Claverton Conference, 24th October 2008, Bath.

See also:


Problems to be addressed
Ethical standards for the strategy
Arboricultural Rationale

The Aim

Desert Rose intends to reforest desert areas by using solar desalination of seawater to irrigate new growth until the area of forest so created is sufficient to sustain and propagate itself.

Problems Addressed by Project Desert Rose

1. Global warming, caused by an accumulation of heat retaining gases in the atmosphere, which is the major threat of our time.
A global disaster can only be stopped and reversed by a multiplicity of actions,  primarily an end to economic dependence fossil fuels, but including the use of carbon sinks by means of reafforestation.
2. Freshwater Scarcity is a major problem in many parts of the world, and is set to become  worse with global warming.
3. Biofuels are required since the supply of fossil fuels is about to become more scarce in the presence of rising demand, which will cause long term rises in the price of fossil fuel price. Biofuels have the advantage of being far closer to carbon neutrality than the fossil fuels that they aim to replace. However, their major problem is that they compete with food crops for land, and in some places valuable rainforest is being destroyed to make land for them. The strategy in this paper avoids these problems by growing biofuels on land that is currently desert.
4. Poverty in Less Developed Countries (LDCs) is a great problem in terms of our common humanity, and also causes knock-on problems by driving people to burn existing forest in search of land for subsistence farming. LDC poverty is a driver for people to emigrate, which sometimes results in community tensions in host countries. The Desert Roses strategy will address this by creating good work, and valuable export commodities, primarily fuel oil,  in LDCs.
5. Desertification is a major problem in many parts of the world, is set to increase with global warming, and compounds the poverty problem. Desertification will  stimulate wars as people fight over diminishing fertile land. This is one component of the current tragedy in Darfur. Desert Rose, by introducing water into arid tropical areas, will reverse desertification through reafforestation. 

This is an immense task, but the longest journey starts with a single step.


The aim is to bring about the afforestation of a desert area by means of irrigation produced sustainably, primarily from an array of improved solar desalination units. The strategy is first to re-create the vital coastal strip of vegetation, and to work from that strip inwards. Once a certain area of forest has been created – the precise area will vary with local conditions, but stands at around 15 square kilometers – the forest will become self sustaining, producing its own microclimate and its own cloud cover. With ongoing human care and encouragement, and by extending the area of irrigation, reafforestation can extend ever further into the interior year on year. 

The new forest can be expected to provide some or all of the following services:

1. Positive change in the local microclimate
2. Positive changes in the water cycle in the area
3. Positive change in the global climate, by acting as a carbon sink
4. Biomass fuel
5. Food for humans
6. Forage for animals
7. Building materials
8. Medicines
9. Biodiversity
10. A sense of well-being for those who experience the new forest, those who contribute to it or  are conscious of it.

In the process of creating this forest, valuable experience will be gained in renewable energy, water management and co-operative action in tropical countries.



The key to afforestation in this project is the production of water in tropical coastal regions from sea water by desalination of sea water. Solar desalination, reverse osmosis and even a limited amount of ground water (if sustainable) could also be used as the source of freshwater.

The stimulus to this project was the Cascade Solar Still, (see Appendix 1) an improvement in the tried and tested single-basin solar desalination still. It is a low-technology still, capable of being assembled by personnel with a short period of training. It is expected that the cascade addition will boost the productivity of the solar still, so that a growing series of stills built along the coast of any tropical (or indeed, warm temperate) country will produce significant amounts of water, sufficient to nurse a new forest into existence. The water will be fed to the new forest through drip irrigation. Manufacturers of other designs of solar still may be offered the opportunity of installing their units, so that efficiency comparisons can be made.

Integral to the performance of the Cascade Solar Still is a pump designed to pour cool sea water over the still. A new Flexible Wave Pump will compete with other designs of wave driven pumps for this role. (See Appendx 2 for specifications of the Flexible Wave Pump). Other types of pumps, wave powered or otherwise, may be tested on site also.

Wave pumps may be put to work during the night (when the solar still is inactive) to drive reverse osmosis plants, which can supplement the freshwater product of the stills.

Some stills will be designed to allow brash and spare wood to be burned beneath them, which will boost their productivity. Charcoal could be produced in this process.

Other designs of solar distillation may be introduced and tested, and other forms of renewable technology will be used, for instance, wind turbines, photovoltaics and solar concentrators to provide energy for the reverse osmosis and reafforestation operation (for instance, for pumping water further inland as the forest grows) and its service community. The centre of the operation will evolve into a renewable energy station, with excess electricity being hydrolysed into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cells. Other saleable by-products of the process are  salt, chlorine (useful for sterilisation of water supplies) and sodium hydroxide, which can be used to convert oil from the new forest into biodiesel. Methanol is required for this process, and that is a by product of the charcoal making process, which can be carried out in the forest. Heat from the charcoal process can be used to boost production of specially modified solar stills. If a harbour is required for transport of goods and people related to the project, the harbour walls themselves may be designed to generate energy from the waves.

In this way, the Desert Rose Project will evolve into a model of green productivity.

It is necessary to allow fossil fuel use in the beginning of the project (for instance, in journeys to and from the site) in order to facilitate the difficult start-up period, but fossil fuel use throughout the project should be carefully accounted for, in order to be able to know when it has been offset, and should be kept to an absolute minimum. 

The afforestation is not to be carried out as a monoculture, but as a reconstruction of an ecosystem, albeit an ecosystem designed to provide certain useful products. The principles of permaculture, which uses local conditions to advantage, and avoidance of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, will underlie the project.

Since the reafforestation will take place in lands that are currently desert, new human settlements must  be formed to service the project. These settlements must be built to very high standards of physical and social design in the best neo-Owenite traditions to avoid the social problems associated with new industrial settlements. In particular, we must avoid breaking up families; married workers  will normally be expected to bring their wives and children with them, so schools will be an integral part of the community.

The entire community will be designed on ecological principles, with particular emphasis on water management. People can use the distilled water from the stills before applying it to forest as grey water. Composting latrines and anaerobic digesters (which produce usable biogas) will avoid the use of water for excrement. There will be some losses to atmosphere from respiration and evaporation from cooking, but if all urine, faeces and waste water are carefully treated and returned to the land, the losses will be insignificant – and the processed water adds a valuable fertiliser to the soil. Experience gained in careful water management can be passed on to other communities with water scarcity problems.

One person needs 20 litres per day to cover drinking cooking and washing, so a 100 sq. metre still could sustain a community of 25 people.
Ethical standards

The Desert Rose project must have the highest possible ethical and green standards throughout, not just for their own sake, but because it will be subject to scrutiny from the green movement. The movement generally is suspicious of large projects, not without reason, and this suspicion will generate high levels of criticism. There is also a presumption in the mainstream of the movement that climate change should be tackled primarily by radically cutting back on CO2 emissions, and that other measures such as offset and mitigation serve to divert attention from this effort. The Desert Rose project is based on the premise that it is possible and desirable to do both things at the same time. 

There must be a zero tolerance of corruption throughout the project, from the outset, since corruption is a cancer that undermines the efficiency of every project it touches. To prevent corruption, all workers must be paid above the usual rate for the job they are doing, on the understanding that if they offer or take bribes, they face instant dismissal.



This huge project will only succeed as a result of successful partnerships which may  include some or all of the following agencies:

1. Central government of the host country
2. Local Government of chosen area
3. Department for International Development (DfID), UK
4. Communities local to the area
5. Glass manufacturers
6. Specialist inflatable dinghy material manufacturers (for the wave pump)
7. Irrigation system manufacturers
8. NGOs working in the host countries
9. NGOs working with arboriculture and permaculture
10. Local business leaders and organisers in the host country
11. UNEP



Financial backing will be sought from charitable foundations, UN and government agencies. In-kind gifts will be sought from glass manufacturers, drip feed manufacturers, and other manufacturers of materials that will be used. The project already has an offer of drip feed materials from a manufacturer.

Universities and producers of solar stills and related technologies will be invited to provide a model of their preferred design for evaluation in the project.

When the project is established, and an audit of carbon fixation has been carried out, we can offer a carbon offset service through forest growth, which will provide a secure long term flow of income.



The provisional location for the Desert Rose Project is in West Africa, near the border between Senegal and Mauretania, since this is the point at which the coastal strip of vegetation fails, and also the northern limit of established rain forest. However, other sites may be found to be more suitable.


Arboricultural Rationale

Transpiration cycle
Trees continually pass water vapour out of the stomata in their leaves into the atmosphere. This water will condense into clouds as it rises into cooler air, and fall as rain, to pass into the soil, there to be taken up again by trees, completing the transpiration cycle.

A molecule of water will go through this cycle six or seven times as it passes from the Atlantic to the Pacific over the Amazon rainforest (see Fig 1, Transpiration cycle.jpg). 


Importance of the Coastal Strip

Most coastal areas have a strip of vegetation, usually palm trees in tropical areas, where moist winds blowing off the sea stimulate growth. This strip is vital to the commencement of the transpiration cycle.




It is the aim of this project to restore this coastal strip as a prelude to reafforestation inland.
A map of the world in figure 4 shows how deserts seem to spread from west to east. At sea level in tropical regions, winds tend to flow in a north easterly direction, and there is a tendency for winds at the coast to flow inland due to the sea breeze effect, as continental areas heat up more quickly than the sea, rising and drawing in cooler air from the sea.



If all the deserts of the earth were reafforested, they would fix the carbon equivalent to 50 years of American CO2 output, and so would significantly reduce the global warming process. Taking into consideration the fact that nature has already fixed down 50% of anthropogenic emissions, reforestation of the deserts could neutralise America’s historic contribution. If this were to be linked to successful implementation of an ecologicaly safe ocean fertilisation programme and a 90% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, it is technically possible for us to neutralise the negative effects of our historic fossil fuel use.


Figure 5 above shows schematically how re-establishing the coastal forest strip could allow the vegetation to act as a water retaining system, eventually reforming its own rain cloud. The Green Belt Movement estimate that dense patches 15 sq Kilometres will produce their own rain cloud. This cloud will increase the albedo (reflectivity) of the region, resulting in more of the sun’s infra red energy being reflected back into space, helping to reduce global warming.

Figure 6  above shows how the forest could be built up again, working at the intersection between the coastal strip and an established area of rainforest that extends inland. The stills are represented as 1-4.

The area of West Africa between Northern Senegal and Southern Mauretania meets this criterion.


Planting strategy

Planting will be carried out on ecological principles, preferably under the guidance of a permaculture expert.

All tree planting will be accompanied with appropriate fungal mycelia in order to boost tree health.

Experiments will be made to measure the potential of other natural methods of boosting growth, such as bio-char  – essentially a form of charcoal which boosts soil productivity.

The solar stills will be so placed as to allow a strip of undisturbed land between them to permit the natural movement of flora and fauna from to and from the water’s edge.

Planting will take into account the prevailing winds, and will be designed with built-in fire breaks.

The reafforestation will be a diverse culture, not a monoculture, which means that collection of the forest products will be manual rather than by machine. This will provide seasonal employment for nearby towns. A number of drought resistant species can be introduced and assessed.

Careful consideration of the invasive potential will be given to any non-native species introduced, and at the first sign of invasiveness, that species will be eradicated.

The water table will be carefully monitored, since some deep rooted species can cause lowering of the table, to the detriment of local wells.

The bulk of the forest will be native to the area, but introduced species will be tested, since climate change means that some native species may not be able to thrive in shanging circumstances.

Of the economically oriented crops, the following will be favoured:

 Jatropha is an oil bearing bush that can grow in arid conditions. It is therefore less dependent on the product of the solar still, and can act as the pioneer species of the advancing forest, together with companion plants which may provide support.

Argan Trees
Argania Spinosa is a native of the semi-desert of South west Morocco. It has deep roots and produces valuable cooking oil, and may be another candidate as a pioneer species in the project.

Oil Palm
Elaeis guineensis is native to West Africa, although the site in Mauretania lies to the north of its normal range. Global warming may compensate for this fact.

Oil from these trees should be processed as closely to the site of production as is possible.

The Self Sustaining Forest

Mature trees access deeper groundwater, so distilled water irrigation will only be needed for nursery stage of the reafforestation, and afforestation can extend further year by year from the same still. Extended irrigation pipes will require pumps to take the water further on.

Forest cover will aid retention of water, and, on reaching a certain area, will create its own rain cloud, increasing albedo (reflectivity of sunlight: an advantage in rectifying global warming) and reducing transpiration losses, bringing about a virtuous circle.

Mulching with ground cover by natural and/or plastic materials will reduce evaporation.

The trees will create a cooler land surface , and will encourage rainfall to reach the ground, as in desert conditions rain can evaporate before reaching the ground. In this way the new forest will conduct rainfall inland.

The new forest can become self sustaining and self propagating, given human help


Solar Stills

See Appendix 1 for the design of Cascade Solar Still. Other sources of water will be from reverse osmosis and rainwater collection.

Solar desalination stills are an established and successful technology. Their deployment and development has been inhibited up to now by their relatively slow production rate from fossil fuelled desalinators, and the mis-perception that oil for distillation was cheap, benign and plentiful. The single-basin still is the standard, although many more complex arrangements have been put forward. As Project Desert Rose grows, it will be possible to put a variety of these alternatives to the test.

There are some hybrid designs of still where the sun is used to pre-heat water, and the process is completed by electricity. A plentiful supply of wind turbines will enable this technology to be assessed. One still may be set aside for heating by biomass, with a fire set beneath a metal plate at the base of the still to speed evaporation.

Tiwari , Singh and  Tripathi have an on line review of solar still technology here:


Water Productivity
The productivity of the basic single basin solar still is quoted as 1 cu metre (1,000 litres) of water per sq metre of still per year, though Solaqua  claim 2,000 litres per sq metre per year for their system.
The productivity of the solar still can be improved by using it as a rainwater harvesting surface during the rainy season. In West Africa, provision of a cistern could add another 50 cubic metres of water to the productivity of a 100 sq metre installation.


Rainwater Harvesting 
Dakar rainfall = 1.38 mm/day
Most falls in July – Sept
100 sq metres of glass fills a 50 cu metre cistern
= 50% increase in productivity of still
Therefore the productivity of a basic 100 square metre still, including rainwater harvesting,  lies between 150 and 250 cubic metres of water per year.
Energy productivity

We will now find how this amount of water translates into oil palm, not because a monoculture of oil palm is envisaged, but in order to find if there is a potential energy payback. 

Given that the oil palm requires 2-5 mm of rainfall a day, the lowest estimate is

Distillate 2.5 litres/day/sq metre
= 250 litres/day/100 sq metre still
The rainwater collection (50 cu metres a year) equates to 137 litres a day, so the total water production amounts to 387 litres/day.

= 387,000 ccs
= 774,000 sq cm of land coverage at 5 mm/day
= 77.4 sq metres
=0.0077 hectare of oil palm supported by a 100 sq metre still.

Given that one hectare of oil palm can yield up to 6000 litres of oil a year,
the 100 sq meter solar still can generate 46.4 litres of oil a year, using the least favourable assumptions.
Using the most favourable assumptions of 6 litres/water/day/sq metre of still,
100 sq metre still produces 600,000 cc’s per day,
equivalent to 3,000,000 sq cm of rain cover at 2 mm/day
= 300 sq metres
= 0.03 hectare
which would give 180 litres of oil a year.

Rainwater harvesting would boost this by 25% (200 cu/metres of water/y > 250)
giving 225 litres of oil/year for a 100 sq metre still.

Note that these calculations are for present technology, and do not take account of any  improvements arising from the Cascade still. The exact improvement from the Cascade Still is yet to be determined.


Energy Payback calculations
If the still is made of sun-baked mud bricks, the major part of the embodied energy in the still will be in the glass. There will also be embodied energy in the plastic tubing for conducting water, and other fittings, and concrete construction would entail significant energy costs.

The embodied energy (ee) of 100 sq metres of glass = 4,800 MJ

(Glass ee = 16 MJ/Kg
100 sq m. at 3 mm thick = 0.3 cu. metre
= 300 Kg = 4,800 MJ)

Specific Gravity of palm oil = 0.924
Calorific value of Palm Oil = 30 MJ/Kg

Taking the pessimistic assumption
46.4 litres of oil = 42.9 Kg
=1287.3  MJ
= 3.7 year energy payback for the glass.

Taking the optimistic assumption,
225 litres of palm oil gives 6237 MJ per year
= 0.77 year energy payback for the glass (9 months)

A 30 year life is quoted for a solar still.

If the other peripherals of the still (hose, pump fittings) double the embodied energy, the paybacks increase from 18 months to 7.4 years.

For simplicity, the calculation has focussed solely on the notional crop from an oil palm plantation. The plantation will also produce biomass, and since it is part of a mixed culture, other products will accrue.

These calculations are based on present technology


Threats to Success

1. Failure of nerve
This is an immense project, which will require a long period of investment, perhaps five years, before strong results are apparent. On the other hand, improvements in terms of  green cover will be visible even in the first few years, but by the same token, browning of these green shoots is quite possible, and this could easily be seized on by red top journalists as “Ground Nut Scheme II”, so press launches will have to balance caution with enthusiasm.
Spreading the risk between many partners means that they may lose interest. A strong liaison officer is the antidote to this.

The project can start modestly, with one still and four workers, and grow in a modular fashion in order to avoid the possibility of a massive failure.
2. Corruption
The zero tolerance policy toward corruption is the only way to eradicate this cancer which undermines projects by whittling away at project monies as they pass down the chain so that the sharp end action cannot be completed. The United Nations Convention against Corruption is an excellent standard to set within the organisation,

The problem can be summed up in two quotes. Marx said: “The key to success in business lies in honesty: if you manage to get rid of it, you’ve done it.” Bertold Brecht: “Honesty begins with a full stomach.”  The first is from Marx G, not Marx K, and should therefore not be taken as gospel. The Brecht quote gives the key to the anti-corruption drive: we must pay all our members well, but let them know that they will be dismissed mercilessly if they engage in corrupt practices.
3. Failure of plant growth
We must accept that failure will be a necessary part of this experiment. Not all species of plant will grow in all soils. Some plantings are bound to fail, and this should be seen as a learning opportunity rather than as a setback. This is the advantage of permaculture, where growth is mixed, so that rather than viewing vast swathes of failed planting, we will see small patches of failure, which can be recycled by being burned under desalination stills designed for that purpose.


4. Human problems
As well as corruption, dissention and disagreements are likely from time to time in what is essentially a colony situation. This can only be offset by careful social design, and facilitating of best group processes, without falling into the trap of social navel gazing.
5. Sea level rise
The project has to be set at the edge of the sea, and the sea may be set to move inland as a result of global warming. The project hardware is capable of being dismantled and reassembled. If the planted forest is killed by frequent flooding, at least the energy value of the biomass can be recovered in the new location. Although the prime candidate site is West Africa,  the downside of this location is that it is low lying for many miles inland. Depending on predictions and observations of sea level rise, and on the size ands commitment of the global economic response to the threat of global warming, the project may make a commitment to West Africa as a statement of faith in our ability to succeed, or may choose another location where it is possible to retreat to higher ground.
Business Plan

The aim of Desert Rose is to create useful biomass and biodiversity in desert areas with ecological benefits to the world community, economic benefits for the countries where the scheme is hosted, and economic benefits for investors in terms of energy products.
There is an urgent a need to fix Carbon dioxide, and a market niche for forest products? The Kenyan Green Belt Movement is an example of the success of this kind of project. NGOs like Tree Aid are also active in planting trees in Africa on a charitable basis. We would not see them as competition, but rather as collaborators working in a different region, and without the emphasis on planting from the coast inwards.
The unique selling point of Desert Rose is the use of solar desalination.
I am seeking funds to enable this project to develop from concept to reality.
Richard Lawson has no project management experience, and therefore the key player in ovreall charge  will be a paid project manager, whose task will be to obtain funding and support initially to source and procure supplies of materials such as glass, and to set up the workforce in the target region. This will involve liaison with national and regional Government bodies, and recruiting a team of local people who will execute the work.
Capital costs     $100,000
Project Manager salary   $75,000  p.a. payable for five years
Travel and office costs   $25,000 p.a.

Workforce (25 people at $2000p.a. each) $50,000 p.a. payable for five years
In total, the project will need $125,000 p.a. over five years, with initial capitalisation of $100,000.
It is envisaged that these costs will be multi-funded, with money from Earth Appeal compounded with grants from Western Governments’ aid budgets, and from grants from host nations.
Profits from sale of oil will accrue to the workforce team. There will be no net profit envisaged for the pump primer, who will act for the benefit of the planetary environment. 

Progress will be monitored by a small board of trustees, who will recive reports from the project manager, and from independent rapporteurs who inspect the field site on a six monthly basis.

The targets is to create a self sustaining and healthily expanding forest. This is achievable, given that it is in the nature of forests to grow. The success of the Green Belt Movement is a hopeful pointer.
It is estimated that it will take five years of outside support before the local community becomes autonomous and independent of outside support. After this, the scale of support can be reduced to surveillance and advisory.


Appendix 1 – Cascade Solar Still

A Cascade Solar Still is equipped with means to cool the condensing surface or roof of a simple conventional solar still, and to pre-heat the water fed into the evaporation chamber, in order to improve the efficiency of the solar still.

The world faces an increasing shortage of fresh water. Sea water is plentiful, but desalination of sea water using fossil fuels carries financial and environmental costs which are difficult to accept in most situations.

The principle and practice of the solar still, using the sun’s heat to purify water by evaporation followed by condensation onto a cold surface,  has been known since 1872. Many improvements have been suggested, notably MXPA03009981, which makes claims for detailed construction of a still (1995), and WO2004/087579 A1 (replacing EP1628919) for a design using cellular modules, and an improved slideable seal for the glass. He made further improvements in AU753643B. A multiplicity of  innovations aim for a high technology approach to solar stills, for instance, NL1026425C, WO2007030851, WO2007013099, WO2006077593. These improvements bring in a technological complexity which may not be economically viable all circumstances.

The present innovation is intended to improve the performance of the basic solar still design, using ‘intermediate’ technology that is as far as possible available to people in developing countries. It is especially appropriate to sites bordering the sea where large volumes of relatively cold sea water can be supplied, in particular by means of the Flexible Wave Powered Hydraulic Pump, which is the subject of a separate patent application. In the absence of a Flexible Wave Powered Hydraulic Pump, other pumping mechanisms can be used for the purposes of cooling the condensing surface.

In inland areas a pumped supply of contaminated ground or surface water can also be used as feed water for the solar still.

The efficient operation of the any still depends on three factors:
1. The warmth of the feed water
2. The coldness of the condensing plate
3. A minimal loss of vapour.

Factor 2 is so important that it is found that solar stills operate at peak efficiency in the evening, when the contained water is still hot, but the roof begins to cool off. This invention addresses points 1 and 2.
Appendices: Description of the Cascade Solar Still and Wave Water Pumps

[these have been excised  to save space, but can be obtained by emailing]


  1. Reply

    You do realize the wild rose was the most common weed in the Sahara. Its roots helped hold soil in place. That every oasis (big lakes in some cases) had a specific rose, maybe two with the big ones. That these roses were transplanted early on, to create natural hybrids. That many of the early biblical references praising the rose, were omitted because farmers and herders paid to have these references omitted. The only one left I can find is “The desert will bloom like the rose.” The cement was bird manure from huge flocks of birds, so great in number, they created the manure winds. The manure mixed with the miasmas or morning mists from the many many wetlands. I am talking 8,000 years ago.

    You cannot do anything much to the Sahara unless those living there agree. And they have to think God wants them to make it look like it once did in the early days.

  2. Reply

    I am working on this stuff, and have been all my life.
    We are not too far away from each other.
    I am at Wiveliscombe in Somerset.
    Please can we talk? 01984 624257

  3. Reply

  4. Reply

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