Alain Gachet celebrating a new water discovery in northern Kenya's Turkhana region 8 july 2013.

This article is published in our November 2018-January 2018 edition as part of our Global Genevans section. Global Genevans are unusual individuals who embody the spirit and themes of the world-wide International Geneva community.

In 2015, the Iraqi government made a strategic political decision. It opted to approach Alain Gachet, a stocky, white-haired geophysicist and one of the world’s top hydro specialists, to urgently find new fresh water sources. For the Iraqis, it was not only imperative to meet the country’s water needs for the future, but also to reduce its dependence – 80 per cent – on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, both of which have their origins in neighbouring Turkey.

Funded by UNESCO and the European Union, the Frenchman and his team put together a gigantic “soil hydromorphy map” indicating at least 67 new deep aquifer systems below 500 metres dating from 544 million to 2.6 million years ago (Paleozic to Neogene ages). Sixty-four of these are in northern Iraq, representing a ground water potential of 1.68 million hectares. Three other massive aquifer systems were also mapped in the Western Desert of Iraq. Together, these deep-water sources are believed to lie under almost all of Iraq.

Irrigation in Iraq. An urgent need to improve the country’s water resources.

As Gachet points out, while more exploration wells still need to be drilled to determine their full replenishable potential – the aquifers are re-charged across hundreds of kilometres from mountainous watersheds in neighbouring areas such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran – these huge deep groundwater systems could radically overhaul Iraq’s agricultural landscape. They could transform hitherto semi-arid zones into rich, irrigated farmland, while significantly reducing the country’s dependence on the Tigris-Euphrates river system.

“We are now completing the Iraqi project by monitoring wells in Kurdistan where it is possible to drill without being killed by ISIS,” added Gachet, whose bodyguard was murdered by the Jihadists. “ISIS still represents a real obstacle for moving ahead in the rest of Iraq.”

Water is good for two things: peace and war

For the moment, however, it does not look as if this hydromorphic map will be put to immediate use, primarily because of ongoing political tensions, particularly in northern Iraq. “Water is good for two things; peace – and war,” explained Gachet, who runs his water exploration company, WATEX, out of Tarascon in Provence, but is keen on moving his operations to Switzerland because of its position as the world’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) hub. “So we have to be careful how we use it. And we’re not talking about geological terrain, but a very difficult diplomatic terrain.”

Alain Gachet at one of his newly-installed water pumps. (Photo: Gachet)

Historically, water always has been a contentious issue for power and wealth if not basic survival, whether control of irrigation ducts in the Swiss Alps, water access rights in the Hindu Kush or agricultural usage in the western United States. Turkey, for example, seeks to assert its control through dams over the Euphrates and the Tigris, both of which serve as agricultural lifelines for Syria and Iraq. Recently, it has used its dams to pressure the Kurds in northern Iraq. Turkey’s potential strangle-hold, however, would disappear overnight if other sustainable water resources were made available.

A rising prospect of water wars in the 21st century

While Swiss diplomacy is currently seeking ways to develop more appropriate international legal oversight and sharing of water resources in the Middle East and northern Africa, such efforts may not prove enough. With a surging world population, available fresh water sources are becoming increasingly limited. Even more acute is the rising prospect of water wars in the 21st century; that is, unless more reliable – and abundant – water resources can be made available. This is a challenge that Gachet, who has revolutionized the art of finding water, believes he can help resolve. His solution? To help ‘unlock’ the massive fresh water reserves that exist throughout the Earth’s substrata.

Based on current estimates, the planet’s 500-5000 metre-deep underground aquifers are believed to contain 30 times more fresh water than above-ground lakes, rivers and streams; at least 70 per cent of these huge reservoirs are considered replenishable, meaning that with sustainable and carefully-managed exploitation, they can serve as inexhaustible sources of fresh water. Such water has been seeping through underground over millions of years from high precipitation areas, such as the mountains of Uganda, Ethiopia and Caucasus to lower arid or semi-arid regions.

“If used properly, access to these reserves could turn most of the world’s potentially cultivable land, including deserts, into rich agricultural areas,” explained the 67-year-old Madagascar-born physicist and geologist, who considers himself primarily an explorer. “But this won’t happen overnight. One also has to educate people in how to manage their reserves in a sustainable manner.”

As a means for discovering these enormous reserves, Gachet, who spent more than 20 years working with the French petroleum company Elf-Aquitaine (he left for internal political reasons), has come up with a mathematical algorithm. It has already proved its worth by locating hitherto unknown ‘invisible’ water reserves in places such as Kenya, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. He is currently mapping deep water resources in Costa Rica, a normally water-rich country, but now suffering from drought, while in South Africa he is seeking solutions for the worsening water crisis, including working with commercial farmers, many of whom are now facing bankruptcy.

All this is being done through his development of cutting-edge technology combining NASA satellite imagery and earth-science parameters, but also applying his own broad personal experience. According to former U.S. ambassador William Ramsay, a veteran diplomat and energy expert who has collaborated with the talented and innovative Frenchman, Gachet’s achievement has been to create a cross-disciplinary methodology for identifying deep aquifers through multiple-source remote sensing, hard rock geology and the study of topography and underlying geology, all coupled with a dose of informed intuition.

“He has proven the reliability of his assessments at every stage and presented fresh, replenishable water opportunities to local communities and their administrators,” said Ramsay.

UNICEF water truck in Basra. (Photo: UNICEF)

Water: a wealth that can change the world

Gachet, who is passionate about geology and earth sciences, first began devising his new approach when hired by Shell to look for oil in Libya. He realized that he could search for water by filtering satellite and radar imagery to the point that only humidity was shown. Combined with surface image analysis, such as detecting the roughness of rocks, he was eventually able to produce a mathematical algorithm capable of only depicting humidity and thus the possibility of underground water reserves. “For me, it’s about exploring that incredible wealth that exists beneath the surface of the earth. It’s a wealth that can change the world.”

However, it was only in 2004 that he was able to test his approach. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) was desperately looking for water in Chad for 250,000 Darfur refugees when it heard about Gachet, the only engineer available with both the tools and appropriate innovative approach. Travelling around the desert region looking for the tell-tale rocks in combination with his satellite imagery, Gachet eventually found what he thought was the right place, which he marked with a white-painted stone. The drilling teams got to work and soon water was gushing out.

By 2005, the Americans were interested. According to Saud Amer of the U.S. Geological Survey, Gachet’s approached proved to be 98 per cent accurate. “Alain is a genius,” Amer said. “Anyone can study this, but it depends on expertise and talent.” The Americans eventually drilled 1,700 wells supplying three million refugees with water.

Both the European Union and Switzerland quickly demonstrated interest, but also expressed curious concerns. The EU considered his approach ‘dangerous’ (“you can find water in war zones”) and therefore politically risky. As some think tanks and NGOs point out, the moment you find water in a war zone, the political situation becomes even more unstable. The local mafia also move in given that they are often the ones providing water with their truck convoys and delivery systems. They do not wish the problem to be resolved.

The Swiss Development Corporation, on the other hand, liked what Gachet had to offer, but demanded that he simply hand over his intellectual property as an open resource. Gachet consistently refuses to provide his approach for free. Any donor or organization that wishes to benefit should also contribute toward its costs, he maintained. “If you want water, then I’ll bring you water. But the algorithm is my business, not yours.”

At a water training exercise in the Ogaden. (Photo: Gachet

As Sylvie Boulloud, a French producer who spent more than two years closely following Gachet for the documentary Le Sourcier des Temps Modernes, points out, he is the one to assume all the risks when exploring. “Not only is he committing his own expertise, but also each time hundreds of thousands of dollars until water is actually found. So it’s curious when donors say they want this for free.”

For Ambassador Ramsay, the trouble lies in the economics of water. “It’s not quoted on any bourse. It has only local value (you can’ t export it to some global market) and it’s a politically difficult commodity to manage.” Nor is there any mechanism for gaining exploitation rights over a water resource base and connecting it with downstream customers. “The people in the business of finding water don’t like this kind of bullet-proof competition,” he noted.

Unlike the petroleum industry, water exploration does not have the same financial backing. Nor do local engineers understand the need to be precise. And then there is the problem of political corruption by those who are simply out for their own purposes, added film-maker Boulloud. “Once water is found, there are often no laws to ensure that local populations are the ones who should benefit.”

Politicians need to decide who is more important: People? Or themselves?

Despite Gachet’s success in Chad with the Darfur refugees, the UN refused to re-engage his services for five years in a similar form of ‘blackmail’ – as Gachet describes it – but then eventually asked him in 2013 to help find water in the Turkhana region of northern Kenya. His methodology and test drilling soon discovered five huge, replenishable aquifers in Lodwar and the Lotikipi Plains, both of which heralded the prospect of completely transforming this semi-arid zone into fertile, irrigated land. Easy access to water could drastically re-shape the lives of its primarily nomadic population, who suffer from drought and poor nutrition.

The new wells immediately provided water, but when Gachet returned two years later he found a different story. The Lodwar wells drilled according to his norms remained productive, providing ample water for cattle but also enabling women to no longer have to walk miles with their canisters.

However, in the Lotikipi Plains to the west, where Gachet had discovered 4,000 square kilometres of underground water reserves – 20 times larger than the ones at Lodwar – the wells were closed. “Access to water should be for everyone, but they’re always groups and individuals who wish to manipulate water in their own interests,” maintained Gachet.

According to the Frenchman, his original survey had discovered three aquifers, one of them saline. This meant that the wells had to be drilled carefully. Instead, the Kenyans had penetrated the saline aquifer causing the fresh and salty water to mix.

Given that nomads do not provide enough votes, the Nairobi politicians could not be bothered to rectify the problem. Nor had the Ministry of Environment sent a map of the water reserves to the regional governor, who might have been in a position to take action. There were also suspicions that politically-inspired business interests were now buying up land in order to benefit once the wells are properly drilled opening up the area to farming.

For Gachet, who has written a book about his experiences (L’homme qui fait jaillir l’eau du désert – The man who caused water to gush from the desert) maintains that scientists should not have to fight windmills. “The reality is that if there is no political will, then local people will not get their water. It makes me very angry to see one’s work reduced to nothing.”

And yet, despite Gachet’s success, there is a problem with jealousy, suspicion and fear. While some governments are keen to work with him, they are reluctant to recognize his achievements for political or economic reasons.

This includes France, which, while granting him the Legion d’Honneur, has ignored making more practical use of his methods. As far as Paris is concerned, noted Boulloud, water belongs to the big water companies, whether at home or globally, who seek to export their purification systems or nuclear power stations. “This is far more profitable than the technology offered by Gachet.”

Furthermore, she pointed out, Gachet is a bit of an embarrassment, an uncontrollable neutron and adventurer given that he is able to deal with an entire country from his little office with one employee in the south of France. The Ministry of Environment has consistently refused to meet with the French water engineer.

As Ambassador Ramsay put it somewhat gloomily: “Alain has provided a tool for humanity to address one of the most serious problems of the 21st century.  Yet like many other artists, he may only be eventually recognized posthumously.”

Edward Girardet, who has reported wars, humanitarian crises and development issues for over 40 years, is editor of Global Geneva magazine.

Alain Gachet’s book can be found here. 

Details on Sylvie Boulloud’s France 5/TV5 documentary Le Sourcier des Temps Moderne in French and English on Alain Gachet. Plus a shorter version here.

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