Underground Lakebed Sparks Hope for Darfur Satellite mapping has uncovered in Darfur a buried lakebed the size of Massachusetts. Scientists think its water may have seeped into a reservoir underneath it. If that's the case, it could help ease fighting in one of the driest places on Earth.
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Underground Lakebed Sparks Hope for Darfur

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Underground Lakebed Sparks Hope for Darfur

Underground Lakebed Sparks Hope for Darfur

Underground Lakebed Sparks Hope for Darfur

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/12130381/12130386" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A Sudanese woman carries bricks near a refugee camp in Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region. Darfur is one of the driest places on Earth. In recent years, more than 200,000 people have died there due to a conflict rooted partly in disputes over water. Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

Satellite mapping has revealed in Darfur an underground lakebed, shown here in blue. The lakebed is the size of Massachusetts. It's possible its water seeped into a reservoir underneath it. Boston University Center for Remote Sensing hide caption

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Boston University Center for Remote Sensing

Satellite mapping has revealed in Darfur an underground lakebed, shown here in blue. The lakebed is the size of Massachusetts. It's possible its water seeped into a reservoir underneath it.

Boston University Center for Remote Sensing

Remote sensing experts say they may have found a huge reservoir of water underneath one of the driest and most troubled places in the world. The so-called "mega-lake" was found beneath Darfur, in western Sudan. In recent years, more than 200,000 people have died in conflicts in Dafur. These conflicts are partly due to disputes over water and other natural resources.

Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, found the buried lakebed — the size of Massachusetts — while examining satellite maps of underground rock formations in western Sudan.

"It's one of the driest places on Earth," said El-Baz. "In some places there, it rains only once every 20 to 50 years."

El-Baz says the lakebed is essentially a giant bowl of sandstone. The satellite maps even show the rivers that fed this giant lake. And inside the lake, like bathtub rings, you see the lines that once marked the surface of the water.

El-Baz thinks the water that was once above this sandstone seeped down through it several thousand years ago. He believes that it's now sitting underneath the buried lake bed, above a layer of impervious rock.

El-Baz has found these kinds of buried lakes in the past. Wells drilled into some of them are pulling up water that is being used to irrigate farm fields in the Middle East. After looking at satellite photos of the Darfur mega-lake, the president of Sudan endorsed what's basically a call for global aid that would help pay for exploratory wells. Egypt has agreed to drill 20 of these wells. The United Nations will drill several more.

Humanitarian groups that have been working to end the conflict in Darfur hope these wells all hit the jack pot. Some of them think water from these wells could help ease tensions in the region.

"It could be a first step towards a lasting peace," said Hafiz Mohammed of Justice Africa.

Skeptical geologists note that many buried lakebeds have turned out to have no water underneath them. And Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute says he has a broader worry.

"It's true that the conflict in Darfur was partly caused by disputes over water and other natural resources," said Gleick. "But it's also rooted in more deeply seated racial and religious fights. I love the idea of drilling for water in this region... but I do not think it's likely to end the conflict."

A paper describing the find under Darfur will be published soon in the Journal of Remote Sensing.

Scarce Resources, Ethnic Strife Fuel Darfur Conflict

An African Union soldier patrols a camp for the internally displaced in the war-torn western region of Darfur, Sudan, June 2006. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in August to replace the A.U. forces with more than 20,000 U.N. troops, but Sudan's president opposes the move. Charles Onians/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Charles Onians/AFP/Getty Images

An African Union soldier patrols a camp for the internally displaced in the war-torn western region of Darfur, Sudan, June 2006. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in August to replace the A.U. forces with more than 20,000 U.N. troops, but Sudan's president opposes the move.

Charles Onians/AFP/Getty Images

Darfur, a region in western Sudan, borders the Central African Republic, Libya and Chad. Darfur is the site of an ongoing, Muslim-on-Muslim conflict between black African tribes and Arab-speaking populations. Many of those displaced by the fighting have fled across the border to refugee camps in Chad. Melody Kokoszka, NPR hide caption

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Melody Kokoszka, NPR

Darfur, a region in western Sudan, borders the Central African Republic, Libya and Chad. Darfur is the site of an ongoing, Muslim-on-Muslim conflict between black African tribes and Arab-speaking populations. Many of those displaced by the fighting have fled across the border to refugee camps in Chad.

Melody Kokoszka, NPR

About the Author

Before joining NPR's foreign desk as an editor in 2001, Didrik Schanche was a newspaper and wire service reporter. From 1987-94, she was The Associated Press' East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Rebels from the Sudanese Liberation Army play cards in a house in a deserted village in northern Darfur, May 2006. This branch of the SLA refused to sign the peace deal concluded in May between Sudan's government and another SLA faction, led by Minni Minnawi. Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images

The deadly conflict in Darfur has deep roots in a vast, arid and long-neglected region in Sudan's west, where battles over water and grazing rights stretch back generations.

The demographic shift that plays out across Africa's north helps feed the conflict. Darfur is on the leading edge of the continental demographic divide, where sub-Saharan black Africa melds with Arabic-speaking populations. And in this Muslim-on-Muslim battle in Darfur, it is the civilians who suffer.

The current hostilities erupted in early 2003, when two rebel groups - The Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) - attacked government targets, claiming that the predominantly African region was being neglected by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. The rebel movements - from different ideological backgrounds - cooperated in their fight against the government.

But during peace talks in 2006, the rebels went their separate ways. The SLA, led by Minni Minnawi, signed the accord, while the JEM, led by Mohammed Tugod, did not. Since then, the insurgents have splintered and there are now more than 20 offshoots of these groups.

Long-Standing Ethnic Tensions

Tension between the region's African farmers and Arab pastoralists has existed for decades. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, described the roots of the conflict.

"To outsiders, the conflict is seen as tribal warfare. At its roots, though, it is a struggle over controlling an environment that can no longer support all the people who must live on it," she said in an interview with The Washington Post.

A sense of inequity was exacerbated by years of official Sudanese government support for groups in the region who identified themselves as Arab. An administrative reorganization in 1994 divided the vast territory into three regions and put Arabs in positions of power.

The black African tribes - the Fur, Zagawa and Masalit - found themselves increasingly marginalized. People in Darfur refer to themselves as "black," and many Darfuris say that the dispute with the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum is ethnically based. Droughts and diminishing resources ignited regular communal hostilities, which came to a head with the rebel assaults in 2003.

A Scorched-Earth Response

The government responded with a scorched-earth campaign against the rebels and the tribes they came from. The Sudanese government used aerial bombardments, while government-backed Janjaweed militia attacked civilians on the ground. Janjaweed come from Arabic-speaking pastoralist communities. They herd camels in northern Darfur and cattle in southern Darfur.

The attacks razed villages, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands - most as the result of disease and starvation - and displaced millions of people, many of whom fled across the border to refugee camps in Chad. The Janjaweed have been accused of the systematic rape and ethnic cleansing of Darfur's black residents. Sudan's government denies it supports the militia.

Shaky Peace Deals Fail to Stem Violence

The African Union brokered a shaky truce between the government and the rebels in May 2004 and sent a small force of military observers to monitor the pact. But violence continued. Citing a "consistent and widespread" pattern of atrocities, the United States in September 2004 accused Sudan's government and Janjaweed militia of genocide.

The African Union troops were bulked up to a force that eventually numbered 7,000. But the soldiers were badly outnumbered and outgunned. Funding problems mean they often went weeks without pay. Their weak mandate, combined with poor resources and insufficient numbers to patrol a region the size of France, left them incapable of halting abuses.

Fighting escalated as rebel factions splintered and new insurgent groups were formed. Civilians continued to suffer attacks from insurgents, government forces and Janjaweed militia.

In June 2007, Sudan bowed to international pressure and agreed to a detailed plan by the African Union and the United Nations to send a joint peacekeeping force of nearly 26,000 troops to Darfur. But by late 2007, that force still had not been assembled — due in part to the logistics involved in assembling such a force and also, say some, on bureaucratic roadblocks thrown up by Sudan's government.

In September, 10 African Union troops were killed when rebels overran their camp.

In a renewed effort to forge peace in Darfur, Libya invited all parties to the conflict to African Union-United Nations mediated talks in Sirte, Libya, at the end of October. But those talks foundered over the absence of the key rebel leaders, the SLA's Abdul Wahid Mohammed el-Nur and the Islamic Justice and Equality Movement's Khalil Ibrahim.

Aid Efforts Snarled by Ongoing Violence

Throughout this conflict, international aid groups have worked to care for Darfur's victims. But continuing attacks have made their jobs increasingly difficult. More than a dozen employees of international aid organizations have been killed in the violence. The lack of security has forced many relief organizations out of the region altogether, and limited access for those that have stayed.

One of the most difficult things about providing assistance to the people of Darfur is just getting there. Darfur sits in the middle of the continent, just below the Sahara Desert. Ships carrying food aid for Darfur are docking at ports on three sides of the continent, in Cameroon on the Atlantic, in Libya on the Mediterranean and to the east at Port Sudan on the Red Sea.

Once the food gets to Africa, it has to be trucked over land in all-terrain vehicles to refugee camps in Chad and Sudan. During the rainy seasons, the land becomes impassable.

The U.S. government remains one of the biggest donors of humanitarian aid to Darfur.

Bush Administration's Response to Darfur

The Bush White House became the first and only government to label the conflict in Darfur as genocide in September 2006 when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We concluded — I concluded — that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and Janjaweed bear responsibility and genocide may still be occurring," he said.

President Bush named former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios as special envoy to Sudan, in an effort to get greater weight behind an international peacekeeping force and maintain momentum on peace mediation efforts. However, the situation is little changed. Civilians continue to be killed and uprooted in violence that has only escalated with time. And those committing the violence remain largely unpunished.