National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: That Lake Bed Under Darfur

What do Las Vegas and Darfur have in common?

Having to be in Las Vegas on business last weekend, I flew over hundreds of miles of lifeless desert to get there. The Nevada desert looks a lot like how Darfur appears like when viewed from Google Earth.

Indeed, Las Vegas sits in the middle of desert. It was 110 degrees all three days I was there. Before it was founded by a gangster in the 1930s, it was a dirt cross-road. The only nearby habitation was in Henderson, a company town for thousands of workers who built the massive Hoover Dam, certainly a candidate for one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Vegas is actually uninhabitable. For all of its “over the top” glitz and creature comforts, the half-million or so locals and tens of thousands of visitors every day could not survive if someone suddenly hit a switch and turned off the power, cutting the electricity and water.

It’s a marvel that such an amazing aggregation of human wealth, leisure and funnels for flushing disposable income can rise out of such a desolate landscape.

The long and the short is this: why are not the methods used to build Las Vegas in the desert being used to lift the desperate millions out of starvation in Darfur?

Aid packages, as well-intentioned and helpful as they may be for Darfur, have nothing to do whatever with what made Las Vegas, for better or worse, possible.

The Hoover Dam did.

Trapping and deploying the waters of the Colorado River for human applications, has not only made Las Vegas feasible, but much of the southwestern U.S. Without that and similar large-scale water diversion projects, the meager creeks of the Los Angeles basin could support only a few thousand human souls, not the 14 million who live there now.

But the policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank toward the desertified regions of Africa are to focus on small backyard wells, instead.

I say “desertified” because Darfur, neighboring Chad and much of the southern Sahara region known as the Sahel were not always desert.

The vast sub-Saharan region used to be among the most lush and fertile in the world, but went through a degradation similar to the infamous Dust Bowls that destroyed farmland across the U.S. high plains during the Depression.

But therein lies the hope for the future of Darfur and Northern Africa in general. Notwithstanding, that is, the IMF and World Bank, and their continuation of the imperial-like policies of forced servitude imposed by the British, French, Italians and others before them.

The British imperial “divide and conquer” policy was to intentionally build railroads with different calibrations in different parts of the African continent, so they could never be integrated into a single rail system. While the U.S. was building its transcontinental railroad as the key to its emergence as a world economic power, the British were deliberately crippling Africa by preventing one there.

While the continental U.S. was also built on large-scale water diversion projects, like the Hoover Dam, continental Africa has been denied access to such things, even to this day.

This spring, scientists using radar techniques discovered that a lake bed the size of Lake Erie sits beneath the sands of northern Darfur. A reconstruction of what it might have looked like at its peak will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Remote Sensing.

Huge reservoirs of water that eventually percolated from that lake probably still sit beneath the region that could be accessed with a major recovery effort.

Once water begins to irrigate vegetation, the climate cools and rainfall is precipitated. The process can be self-feeding, returning an area to its lush past by putting into reverse the process that destroyed it.

The lake bed under Darfur is also evidence of the ability of the region to hold immense amounts of water if it was diverted from the Nile, the Congo or other powerful, major regional rivers, much as the Colorado River was for the U.S. southwest.