Egypt counters desertification with trees that thrive on sewage effluent

Photo credit: Deutsche Welle

In an innovative forestry project known as the Serapium forest, Egypt has found a solution to desertification – when fertile land becomes deserts with the persistent degradation of dryland. 

The solution was planting forests. This is easier said than done as 96% of Egypt is consumed by deserts and Egyptian deserts have virtually no rain falls. But researchers in Egpyt have found a way to repurpose wastewater instead of tapping into the sparse fresh water supply. The result? A thriving tree plantation in the middle of the Egyptian desert.

Photo credit: Deutsche Welle. Outside the plantation, the sun beats down with an intensity twice that of in Europe.

According to Deutsche Welle (DW), the Serapium forest project is a research programme that was initiated by the Egyptian government in the 1990s with the aim to green 36 different desert locations. An array of native tree species were planted alongside commercially valuable non-native species including Eucalyptus and Mahogany.

The source of wastewater is based in northern Egypt, an approximate two hours car ride from Cairo. The body of waastewater is the drainage basin with sewage effluent produced by the inhabitants of the nearby town, Ismailia. 

The individual trees in the 200-acre of the 500-acre plantation are given five litres of the repurposed water twice a day without the necessity of extra fertilizer as the effulent water delivers the nutrients needed. Regular tests have also shown that there was no contamination in the soil with the effluent, DW reported.

In fact, with oxygen and microbes added into the effluent, results showed a high concentration of phospates and nitrogen compounds to deliver quality fertilizers found in powder form at gardening shops.

Photo credit: Deutsche Welle. Treated sewage effluent from the town of Ismailia fertilizes the Serapium forest.

These have resulted in Eucalyptus trees planted to produce wood four times the rate of a typical Pine plantations in Germany. The huge size of Egyptian trees allow them to be harvested in as few as 15 years, at which they produce about 350 m³ of wood per hectare. To give a comparison, in order to produce the same amount of wood in Germany, it would take about 60 years.

As calculated by Hany El Kateb, a forestry scientist at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), if 80% of the effulents were used  to nuture tree plantations in Egypt, which amounts to about 7 billion m³ of effluent annually; an extensive 650,000 hectares of Egyptian desert could be converted to wood production.

Source: Inhabitat and Deutsche Welle