Breathing Life into the Badia

An ambitious project is underway to make Jordan’s arid areas bloom again while creating a new green economy in the process.

The Sahara Forest Project is a Norwegian social enterprise that aims to bring together the latest green technology to re-vegetate arid environments, produce fresh food and water, and create employment.

The project came about in 2010, when HM King Abdullah visited Oslo with Imad Fakhoury, who was Minister of Public Sector Development and Minister of State for Mega Projects. They decided to explore the opportunities for realizing the Sahara Forest Project on the ground in Jordan, said Joakim Hauge, CEO of The Sahara Forest Project.

Construction of the Sahara Forest Project began in Jordan in October 2016 and the launch site was inaugurated by King Abdullah and Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon in September.

With a desire to become a regional center for innovation and green growth in the desert, the project aims to produce 130,000 kilograms of vegetables per year to be sold in the domestic market and 10,000 liters of fresh water per day.

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“We use what the world has enough of—desert, salt water, sun, and CO2—to produce food, renewable energy, and water,” said Hauge.

Aqaba is an ideal location for this. The site’s solar radiation, temperature, soil, and access to seawater make it well-suited for this particular project.

The area is about the size of three hectares, or four football fields, and is centered around the core technologies of saltwater-cooled greenhouses, concentrated solar power, and desert revegetation practices.

Jordan has been heavily affected by desertification over the last decades. According to the Jordan Water Project, Stanford researchers found that Jordan—one of the world’s most water-poor countries—could face potentially disastrous droughts if alternate water sources, better land use, and improved water sharing agreements are not introduced and implemented.

The recent paper suggests that without significant changes, Jordan could face lower rainfall, much higher temperatures, and as much as a 75 percent decline in water flowing into the country from Syria’s Yarmouk River.

The two greenhouses in the Sahara Forest Project operations can produce yields in a desert at equal levels of the most advanced greenhouse operations in the world while the water consumption is half of comparable greenhouses in the region, Hauge said.

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The Norwegian government, the European Union, and USAID, together with private actors Yara International and Grieg Foundation invested nearly $3.7 million dollars to fund the launch. Norway contributed roughly 50 percent of the total, while the EU has contributed approximately $700,000, noted Hauge.

The European Union has more than 160 million euros invested in the renewable energy and energy efficient sector in Jordan, said EU Ambassador to Jordan Andrea Matteo Fontana.

“We support the idea that this country, with a lack of natural resources, should invest more in renewable energy. There is no oil or gas and very little water but there is a lot of sun and there is a lot of desert,” he said.

Jordan meets nearly all of its energy needs by importing oil and gas. The country’s lack of conventional energy sources is complemented by abundant renewable energy resources.

Furthermore, the Kingdom’s energy sector faces rising global oil and gas prices, increased domestic demand, and a changing regional political environment. The cost of imported energy in 2016 was 10 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), according to The Jordan Times, and renewable energy contribution to the overall power generation is expected to reach 20 percent by 2020.

“This is a country with no oil or mineral sources of energy and very little water on the one hand,” said Fontana. “On the other, this is a country with real potential for renewable energy. This project offers solutions to three challenging dimensions: energy, water, and food. It fits with our efforts to make Jordan more self-reliant and resilient in this area.”

The Sahara Forest Project reports on a triple-bottom line approach: The activities have to be good for development, good for the environment, and good for business. Once large scale, the project will remove considerable amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere and store them in new vegetation, it will create green jobs, knowledge exchange and training opportunities, and it will be a good return of investment for investors, stressed Hauge.

It will be established through a three-stage development process, which began with the inauguration of the launch site in September.

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HM King Abdullah stands between CEO of SFP, Joakim Hauge and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway

The second stage will see the 3-hectare facility expand to an 8-hectare facility in addition to an outdoor vegetation area and a solar park. Additionally, 2 hectares will be designated to modern digital hydroponic horticulture, or soilless plant production using a formulated nutrient solution, said Hauge.

In the final stage, the operation will be expanded to a full 20-hectare facility, which will be dubbed the Jordan Center, he said. The timeline for the expansion has not been specified yet but efficient use of land area will be crucial to make both city and rural landscapes as sustainable as possible to minimize the human footprint.

According to the latest World Population Data Sheet from the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), the world population will reach 9.9 billion in 2050, up 33 percent from an estimated 7 billion now. The Sahara Forest Project is working systematically towards the rollout of numerous larger-scale facilities to address this challenge, said Hauge.

The Sahara Forest Project completed a pilot site in Qatar in 2012 and are working on the development of a feasibility study to investigate the potential for establishing the facilities in Tunisia as well. According to Inhabitat—a website dedicated to green design and technology—the Sahara Forest Project aims to expand and impact as many desert countries as possible and the group has plans to eventually build a plant somewhere in the Middle East that would produce 170,000 tons of food every year.

“Larger scale Sahara Forest Project facilities can deliver a powerful impact through enabling a restorative growth,” said Hauge. “It is really about how we see the future and what kind of legacy our generation would like to build for the next. In order to rollout solutions people need to actively accept and support the initiatives. Cooperation between governments, business, academics and NGOs will be crucial for success.”