- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

MEDENINE, Tunisia Distant from the political slogans of Tunis, an army of devoted men and women is searching for ways to prevent the world's largest desert from spreading its wasteland.

Their watchword is "Stop the Sahara," which in recent years has been advancing in all directions, reducing grazing and agricultural land and hampering the development of the countries bordering the desert.

A team of 75 researchers and scientists from Tunisia's Institute of Arid Regions has become the nucleus of a major effort to combat increasing desertification.

Here, in the parched area of southern Tunisia, the institute analyzes the effects of global warming, years of drought and the intensity of sandstorms relentlessly attacking much of North Africa and areas south of the Sahara.

Throughout the years, lakes have been reduced to puddles, oases have been buried by sand and agricultural production has been curtailed.

"Desertification is like cancer," said Houcine Khatteli, the institute's director. "It is an international problem. A country threatened by the desert today will open the way to the invasion of the Sahara elsewhere tomorrow."

The Sahara starts a short distance from here with its dun-colored expanse, which for centuries has excited people's curiosity, attracted explorers, adventurers and, more recently, oil field workers and tourists.

Sandstorms are a permanent threat to the regions bordering the desert, causing concern to the European Union. The wind-driven grit blinds camels and their turbaned owners, paralyzes airports and dumps up to 6 feet of sand in the narrow alleys of towns and oases.

It reaches the southern coasts of Spain, France and Italy and often blows as far as Turkey.

"Wind is one of our worst enemies," said Mr. Khatteli.

Najet Belhadj, who specializes in the study of wind from her outpost at Kebili, said that in the southern part of Tunisia, desert winds blow up to 120 days per year.

The speed of sandstorms can reach 3 yards per second, she said. To reduce the quasi-permanent invasion of the sand, dunes have to be immobilized by planting barriers of shrubs with long and wind-resistant roots.

Oases, towns and roads exposed to what are known as "sand corridors" are protected by rows of barricades of tightly woven palm branches a traditional method found to be the most efficient.

The Medenine institute also is studying the causes and extent of drought, the development of agriculture in arid zones and the breeding of animals capable of withstanding desert conditions.

Tunisia was one of the first countries in Africa to recognize the devastating nature of desertification. It was the first Arab country to create a Ministry of the Environment, and the struggle against the desert employs 102,000 men and women 4.4 percent of the country's working population.

Several times a year, teams of scientists from other countries bordering the Sahara are trained here in adapting Tunisia's tested methods of controlling desertification to their specific conditions.The referendum was preceded by a two-week campaign during which Mr. Ben Ali was hailed by his supporters as the country's "savior," the man who has given Tunisia stability.

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