Technologies that can make this world a better place – part 2: reforestation 2.0

Promising new technologies can suddenly make the future look a lot less gloomy. Today part 2: reforesting the world’s most barren lands by nurturing “the underground forest” and allowing it to heal itself.

Tony Rinaudo (courtesy of Silas Koch/World Vision)

Meet Tony Rinaudo, also known as the Forest Maker or Tree Whisperer, one of the very few people on earth whose achievements can be seen on satellite images. This man is responsible for regenerating no less than 240 million trees in the last 30 years.

In 1983, after two years of doing reforestation ‘the old way’ in Niger, namely by planting trees, Rinaudo despaired:

I was in charge of a reforestation project that was failing miserably, it wasn’t that I was particularly dumb, it was the same story all over west Africa. And I remember the frustration that just hit me: north, south, east, west, was a barren landscape, and I knew perfectly well that 80 or 90% of the trees I was carrying [in my car] for planting would die.

But then Rinaudo took a closer look at the few bushes scattered around the land. He knew these bushes were in fact trees that had been hacked down. Suddenly he wondered: what if we would prune these left-over trees and allow them to grow?

In that moment, everything changed. We didn’t need to plant trees, it wasn’t a question of having a multi-million dollar budget and years to do it, everything you needed was in the ground.

Rinaudo had found an “embarrassingly simple solution” to a seemingly insurmountable problem. The root system of the chopped down trees remained alive under the ground; a whole “underground forest” was still available, as Rinaudo would describe it. The only thing needed was some human care and protection, allowing the trees to grow and heal themselves. In Rinaudo’s words: the only thing needed was some humans “working with nature rather than hitting it on the head all the time.”

After his discovery, Rinaudo had to overturn generations of accepted wisdom, as well as a resistance to giving some land back to nature.

When you’ve got people who are on the edge of starvation every year, not just in famine years, you’ve got this perception that you need every square inch of farmland to grow food crops. And here’s this nut telling people they should sacrifice some of their land for trees.

But as soon as farmers started to see the results of Rinaudo’s method (called Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, or FMNR), the new technique took off. And here we are: 3 decades later and 240 million trees richer. At the UN’s global climate talks in Katowice (December 2018), Rinaudo explained the profound impact of these trees. They:

  • improve farming yields
  • reduce ground temperatures
  • hold water in the soil
  • provide firewood
  • make farming in hot places more comfortable
  • and last but not least: all these trees act as a powerful carbon sink, with the potential to draw in billions more tonnes of carbon

A satellite image of the Humbo region of Ethiopia, showing tree cover in 2005 (left) and in 2017 (right). (Courtesy of World Vision)

Working with World Vision since 1999, Rinaudo has taken his technique across the world, from arid Somaliland to tropical East Timor. His big dream: to see FMNR introduced into at least 100 countries by 2030, as a powerful way of improving people’s lives and pursuing Sustainable Development Goal #15.

In September 2018, Rinaudo received the Right Livelihood Awards, often described as the Alternative Nobel Price. Rinaudo received the award “for demonstrating on a large scale how drylands can be greened at minimal cost, improving the livelihoods of millions of people. [Rinaudo’s reforestation method] has the potential to restore currently degraded drylands with an area the combined size of India.”

Below a video about Rinaudo’s work and impact, produced by World Vision. Much more information can be found on the FMNR website.


Technologies that can make this world a better place – part 1: desalination 2.0

Promising new technologies can suddenly make the future look a lot less gloomy. Today part 1: turning salt water into sweet water in a way that is not only affordable to countries like the US and Saudi-Arabia.

Today, 2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home, a figure that is expected to increase. (UN) Our water use is growing twice as fast as our population growth. More and more regions are reaching the limit of being able to deliver sustainable water services. If nothing changes, the projection is that by 2050 at least 1 in 4 people will be affected by recurring water shortages. (UN)

For this reason, 193 countries committed in 2015 to Sustainable Development Goal #6: access to safe water and sanitation for all by 2030. Not an easy goal to pursue. The world is facing severe water challenges: more droughts, melting ice caps, pollution, lack of water infrastructure, growing bio-energy demands, growing meat demands, and endangered ecosystems.

But here is an intriguing fact: most countries have a coast line and therefore direct access to plenty of salt water. Shouldn’t we consider desalination (turning salt water into sweet water) one of the most obvious solutions to the scarcity issue? Yes, we should. And as a matter of fact, there are already over 18,000 water desalination plants operating in 150 countries, producing water for 300 million people. (PNAS, 2017)

Desalination plants, however, cost a lot of money (up to 1 billion USD) and require a lot of energy: producing a 1000 liter of drinking water takes as much energy as the average Belgian consumes each day. Some countries, especially those with large oil reserves, can cope with these demands (50% of Saudi-Arabia’s drinking water comes from desalination). For other countries it is soon too much. Most of the desalination plants are therefore only in a few countries (see below).

Distribution of desalination plants by country. Source: Nanalyze (2014)

To make desalination more affordable, researchers have been looking for ways to reduce the energy costs and make the process less dependent on expensive and immobile desalination plants. This has led to some promising innovations. In this blog I would like to highlight two of them:

  • A team of Rice University (Houston, US) managed to reduce energy costs by using low-cost, commercially available nanoparticles and sunlight in the desalination process. At the same time, they turned the process into a compact water solution for families and communities also at remote locations. (PNAS, 2017) In other words: no 1 billion USD plant needed. Professor Qilin Li : “We are creating off-grid systems to provide water anywhere it’s needed.” The video below explains.
  • Marjolein Vanoppen of Ghent University (Belgium) found a way to both generate energy and lower the amount of energy needed to produce drinking water. How: by benefiting from the fact that when salt and fresh water come together, the salt moves towards the fresh water, a movement that generates energy. In Vanoppen’s solution, energy is first generated by allowing salt to move from salt water to waste water (not suitable for drinking water production). The generated energy is then used to further desalinate the salt water until it is drinkable. In the video below, Vanoppen explains (from 49:03).

Promising innovations like these require further research and investment funds for scalable applications. A perfect opportunity for governments and entrepreneurs to demonstrate the visionary leadership this world so profoundly needs.