Reflections from Desert Edens

Philipp Lehmann

Sahara Sea
Source: M. Gellaerat, Note sur la mer intérieure africaine ou Mer Roudaire. Paris : P. Dubreuil, 1883.

“It is incontestable that in Roman times, when the basins were filled with water, the south of Algeria and Tunisia was incomparably more fertile than in our days.”
- François Roudaire

Roudaire’s Sahara Sea would have flooded a number of low-lying desert depressions in southern Tunisia and Algeria (the “chotts”) with water from the Mediterranean. In Roudaire’s first calculations, the resulting man-made lake would have covered an area of about 16,000 to 19,000 square kilometers (or about 6,200 to 7,300 square miles; somewhere between the size of Connecticut and New Jersey). The French engineer expected easier and safer access and new marine trade routes to the inland areas of French Algeria, but also a climatic transformation that would turn the desert into fertile land for agriculture and European settlement. Behind the idea stood assumptions of a once fertile North Africa and of the variability and malleability of climatic conditions through geological or human action. Although all but forgotten today, the Sahara Sea project was a sensation in its time. It inspired not only an enduring international debate but also a long line of evolutions and imitations reaching well into the twentieth century. While Roudaire and his successors would never enjoy the sight of a flooded Sahara, their project designs represented the most ambitious expression of new ideas about environmental transformation that had been on the rise since the mid-nineteenth century. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, in particular, inspired engineers - and particularly colonial engineers - to envisage further large-scale modifications of geography. Once the development of climatology and new theories of desertification added to the proven capacity of modern technology, the concepts and tools were in place for turning dreams of engineered climate change into tangible and more or less quantifiable projects on an unprecedented scale.


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