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How a desert detective found water in Darfur – from half a world away

Farouk el-Baz heads to Sudan next month to site wells over what he believes is a vast reserve from an ancient lake.

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Farouk el-Baz has been peering into the deserts of the world for 21 years – from hundreds of miles up and 10,000 miles away. The Egyptian-born geologist and his staff pore over satellite imagery at Boston University's Center for Remote Sensing, seeking clues to deserts' most precious resource: water. The water reserves he announced in April may increase an even more precious resource: peace in Darfur.

"Providing a source of clean water in this region would remove one of the main sources of conflict," Mr. Baz says, sitting in an office lined with bookshelves, awards, photos of him with various world leaders, and a giant image of the Arabian desert.

So important is the potential Massachusetts-size underground aquifer, the remains of a lake that dried up 5,000 to 11,000 years ago, that when the news broke, Baz got a call to speak to the head of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon.

"I briefed the secretary-general personally," Baz says. "He doesn't have 10 minutes for some heads of state, but I gave him a 10-minute presentation, and then he asked questions for 40 minutes. He loved it."

A United Nations Environmental Program report released this past June said "serious water shortages" in Darfur, combined with population growth and environmental degradation, "created the conditions for conflicts to be triggered and sustained" between Arab militias and farmers in the region. Some 3.5 million people in Darfur are living without reasonable access to water, says Craig Miller, president of Thirst No More, a humanitarian group based in Texas that is working on water projects in Darfur and Peru.

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