Farouk el Baz is currently involved in helping to right the environmental damage suffered as a result of the Iraqi invasion or Kuwait. Piney Kesting talked to the man who in the 1960s hoped to start an Egyptian school of economic geology but ended up becoming an international authority on deserts.
The dust had hardly settled from Operation Desert Storm when, in April 1991, Boston University geologist Farouk el Baz was appointed by the Third World Academy of Sciences to lead a two-week fact-finding mission of scientists to the Gulf.
A well-known figure in the region, the internationally renowned desert expert was accustomed to shuttling back and forth between his Boston-based Centre for Remote Sensing and the Middle East. This mission, however, was more sombre. As chairman of the Third World Network of Scientific Organisations' Committee on Environmental Hazards and Global Change, El Baz was called in to survey the effects of the Gulf war on the environment.
Among the staggering environmental problems he and his colleagues witnessed was the widespread disruption of the desert surface in Kuwait, northeast Saudi Arabia and southern Iraq. "Everybody came to the desert to dig," said El Baz, who explained that troop movements with military vehicles, and widespread bulldozing of trenches and sand berms by both sides during the Gulf war wreaked havoc on the desert's stabilising layer of large pebbles.
The destruction of this layer, which El Baz refers to as a "desert shield", exposes the underlying sand and dust particles to wind action, increasing the potential for dust storms and sand dunes that could encroach upon towns, roads and airports.
Uncorrected, the effects of the war on the desert surface could be devastating. El Baz had witnessed this before, when the 1973 Yom Kippur war wrought severe changes in the configuration of sand in the Sinai Peninsula. "It caused a whole new generation of sand dunes that is creating havoc to this day;" he explained.
The solution for Kuwait's war-torn desert was fairly simplistic -- flatten the affected parts of the desert with bulldozers and mimic nature by using pebbles to recreate a new desert "shield". That's just what El Baz is doing today as part of an ongoing joint research project between his Centre for Remote Sensing and the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR).
While assessing the impact of the Gulf war on the region, El Baz stumbled across another serious problem -- a fundamental lack of...