Seeds of innovation to face the coming desert

Drones that spread seeds to reforest forests devastated by fires, artificial intelligence to create predictive models of the water needs of a region, satellite images to find pools of water, hydroponic techniques for plants to grow and absorb nutrients dissolved in water and not in the soil, sensors to control the humidity of the subsoil and irrigate intelligently because every drop counts, research in search of new varieties to grow that can withstand extreme temperatures... In Dubai, a small robot has even been invented (A'seedbot) that searches the desert for the most fertile and humid points where to plant seeds. These are some examples of how innovation and new technologies have become great allies in curbing desertification.

And that cannot be overlooked in a country like Spain where the advance of aridity is a real threat. In fact, forecasts suggest that by the end of the century the desert will extend through our territory to the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains. Although this does not mean that all this surface is going to become an inhospitable and bare place like the Sahara desert or the Atacama desert, but if we do not put a stop to this process, we will have poorer and arid soils, there will be more periods of drought and longer, the forests will be more degraded and there will be less water and therefore less diversity. "We are at risk of desertification," says Patricio García-Fayos, director of the Desertification Research Center (CIDE-CSIC). “Even admitting – he continues – that the rainfall data for the last decades have not decreased, the increase in temperature caused by climate change, which is already here, means that plants and organisms need more water. And if we have the same water, touch for less. If the crops we have run out of water and the forests dry up, it will be a disaster. We have to be able to adapt to this situation."

Affected zone

The National Strategy to Combat Desertification (a compendium of actions up to 2030 to combat this phenomenon) estimates that the level of aridity has increased in 74% of Spanish territory, especially affecting the center and east of the peninsula (Madrid, Castilla- La Mancha and the center of the Valencian Community), Extremadura, mountainous areas of Andalusia and in a more dispersed way to Orense, Navarra, center and west of Aragón, Eastern Pyrenees, Murcia, Alicante and south of Almería. «It corresponds to Mediterranean Spain, only Cantabria, part of Galicia and Asturias are excluded. There will be more exposed areas than others because they have drier climates. That is to say, for example, it will not affect the city of Madrid in the same way as the Sierra de Guadarrama, "says García-Fayos.

74% of the territory of our country is at risk of desertification

To adapt and be able to manage what is to come, different initiatives are being developed using new technologies. CIDE itself is working on it. “With remote sensing techniques and satellite images we are able to process this information and know what and how much vegetation is suffering from drought, and we can even know the exact physical point and when an area is going to be at risk and give the alert. If this is automated and artificial intelligence is used, models can be made to predict the different scenarios of the evolution of an area”, explains García-Fayos.

Different programs are also being developed. The National Strategy to Combat Desertification The Guardian project stands out as a reference (Green Urban Actions for Resilient fire Defense of the Interface Area), in which the municipalities of Riba-roja de Túria and Paterna, Hidraqua, Cetaqua, Medi XXI, the Polytechnic University of Valencia and the University of Valencia participate. The objective is to increase resilience to fire in an area of ​​the Parc Natural del Túria.

In this case, a station has been built that regenerates water from the local Camp de Túria II treatment plant. “We do an additional treatment to the water that comes from the treatment plant. This way we can use it in adequate sanitary conditions”, explains Vicente Adobes, director of the project and municipal technician of the Riba-roja de Túria town hall.

a green barrier

The regenerated water is released by a system of cannons thus creating a green barrier to protect urbanizations from a possible fire that occurs in the nearby forest masses. «If there is a fire, the cannons generate a barrier of water so that the fire reduces in intensity and does not exceed the defense line and does not reach the houses. Also, in a drought situation, the canyons carry out preventive irrigation. They produce rain when the studies of the Polytechnic University of Valencia indicate it. It is about the forest being in an optimal state: if we water a lot, the plants grow and we have more material for a fire to start, and if we water a little, we dry it out. We have a system of sensors that mark the level of humidity in the subsoil and the flow of water in the trees and that tell us when we have to water”, details Adobes. An innovative system to avoid losing forests because if they disappear, desertification advances. "Forests are a kind of refrigerator that reduces the temperature of the environment," says Adobes.

The Technological Center for Water, Cetaqua, has obtained a grant from Microsoft's Al for Earth program to be able to make predictions about the supply and demand of water for agricultural irrigation in the Region of Murcia. “We have many irrigation water ponds scattered throughout the region, and many are not mapped. It is very difficult to install sensors or have a person to see how each raft is doing. We take advantage of digital technologies to monitor these rafts. Without moving, we know how many there are, how much water they contain, what their condition is, if there is enough water for the next harvest... », indicates Rafael Giménez, head of the Water 4.0 area of ​​Cetaqua.

Innovative projects advance in Spain to stop the aridity of the soil

With machine learning technologies from Microsoft Azure, they develop predictive models that help make decisions about the management of water resources for irrigation of crops. «We work a lot with satellite images (visible, infrared, hyperspectral...) that give us a lot of information. The satellite passes over Spain every three days. We have developed an algorithm that, based on these images, detects what a pool of water is and estimates how much water it has. It is a computationally expensive process. Images are heavy and you need powerful machines. Microsoft gives us the computing resources, its cloud, so that we have the capacity to download and process the images,” says Giménez.

imitate dew

The system devised by the Sevillian company Aquaer has aroused great interest. Its generators obtain drinking water from the humidity in the air. “We imitate the dew. A refrigeration unit lowers the temperature of the air to the point of condensation and thus we obtain water similar to that of rain”, explains Juan Veiga, director of Aquaer. Their machines are in the Kalahari desert, in the Atacama, in Iran, in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan... «We have a certificate that they work at 40ºC and 12% humidity. And it has even worked in the desert of Iran at 50ºC and 12% humidity. The largest machine we have has produced 18,000 liters of water per day. And we can do custom projects. The good thing about our generators is that they produce more water with heat than with cold. That's why they adapt very well to the desert." This solution has applications to supply drinking water for human consumption and for industrial use, as well as to irrigate crops in the desert.

The Segura Center for Edaphology and Applied Biology (CEBAS-CSIC) leads the Precimed project, in which SMEs, technology centers and farmers from Spain, Tunisia, Algeria and Greece participate. In this case, it is intended that farmers receive real-time recommendations on their mobile, tablet or PC about the water and nutrient needs of their crops. Something that will lead to savings in water and fertilizers in these areas with real water stress. To do this, the researchers will develop a system, based on an algorithm, that will collect, process and analyze a large amount of data from sensors in the field and weather stations.

Like these, other innovative initiatives are advancing in Spain to stand up to the desertification that is already spreading silently and slowly throughout our country.

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