BOSTON – Scientists have discovered the underground remnants of an ancient lake in Sudan's arid Darfur region, offering hope of tapping a precious resource and easing water scarcity, which experts say is the root of much of the unrest in the region.
The researchers hope to drill at least 1,000 wells in the dusty territory and pump the long-hidden water to ease tensions among communities living there — and strengthen efforts to restore peace in Darfur.
Decades of scarce water and other resources have stoked low-intensity local conflicts that eventually led to a devastating civil war.
The four-year conflict has killed more than 200,000 people, displaced more than 2.5 million others and sparked a regional humanitarian crisis after feeding instability in neighboring Chad and Central African Republic.
"Much of the unrest in Darfur and the misery is due to water shortages," said geologist Farouk El-Baz, director of the Boston University Center for Remote Sensing, which led the effort that discovered the massive lake in northern Darfur using radar data from space.
"There have been two long episodes of drought during the past 20 years, each lasting for about seven years," the scientist said, adding that the drought aggravated tensions between Darfur's ethnic African tribesmen and nomadic Arabs.
Water pumped from the underground reservoir — measuring as large as the state of Massachusetts — could help ease tensions in Darfur, El-Baz said. The wells could enable Darfur's nomadic Arabs to maintain their lifestyle, sedentary communities to flourish and irrigation to kick-start agriculture activities that may feed trade and economic growth, he said during a telephone interview.
El-Baz, a veteran of NASA's Apollo lunar exploration program, has pioneered the study of desert landscapes using satellite images.
Radhia Achouri, spokeswoman for the U.N. Mission in Sudan, said she could not comment because she had not read a report on the discovery and was not sure how soon the water could be exploited.
The water reservoir lies underneath a former highland lake whose features are covered by wind-blown sand, researchers said. The ancient lake occupied an area of 11,873 square miles, about the size of Lake Erie, and would have contained approximately 977 square miles of water when full.
Scientists plan to identify the best location for drilling the initial batch of wells. The government of neighboring Egypt has pledged to drill the first 20 wells, and the U.N. Mission in Sudan also plans to drill several more for use by its peacekeeping forces, the university said.
The Darfur conflict began in February 2003, when African tribesmen took up arms, complaining of decades of neglect and discrimination by the Arab-led Khartoum government. The government is accused of arming militiamen as a counterinsurgency tactic, which it denies, and the militiamen are blamed for widespread rapes and killings of Darfur civilians.
In March, the State Department issued a report calling the campaign by the Sudanese military and its proxy militias against Darfur rebel groups genocide — a term the United Nations has refrained from applying to Darfur.