By Luc Dewulf
War in Ukraine, climate catastrophe and political instability are just some of what we inherit from our ancestors today. Tomorrow, we as students will be the engineers, policymakers and leaders, shaping the world to make it a better place.
Yet, we can learn from the past to mould our ideas for the future. One such historical plan was to drain the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to quench our thirst for land, food, and energy. It still merits a closer look almost a century after it was proposed – and might inspire us for a better version of it.
It all started in 1927 with a striking Eureka moment: The Mediterranean Sea has not always been filled with azure coloured sea water, but instead was flooded after the latest ice age only 50,000 years ago, resulting in the blue Mediterranean basin as we know it today.
Although theories for the formation of this water body between Europe and Africa are still contested, it remains a proven fact that its largest inflow is the Atlantic Ocean – a monstrous 88,000 metres cubed of water enters the Mediterranean Sea through the strait of Gibraltar every second. A quantity comparable to 35 Olympic swimming pools or 12 Niagara Falls.
For Herman Sörgel (1885-1952), a Munich-based architect, this was the solution to Europe’s growing energy crisis. He termed it ‘Atlantropa’. 94 years forward not a single sketch of his plans has been realised, yet energy, land, and food security remain one of the world’s biggest unresolved issues, not least for Europe and Africa.
Fortunately, Sörgel left us with a legacy of half a dozen maths-heavy books that describe the vision of this macro-engineering project to the minutest micro-detail, with a pitifully weak consideration of geopolitical and socioeconomic hurdles.
If a 360-meter tall and 14-kilometres long dam between Morocco and Gibraltar was built, requiring two square kilometres of filling material, the Mediterranean Sea would be isolated from its main water source, leaving only rivers as main tributaries. Evaporation by the sun would then naturally drain this gigantic lake by about one metre annually, generating new land about twice the size of the UK.
Given that for an average UK diet 0.3 hectare of agricultural land are required per capita , the reclaimed seabed would have the potential to feed an additional 87 million people, and if Sörgel’s plan was carried through there would even be enough energy to irrigate parts of the Sahara.
At 200 meters below the current sea level the water cycle could then be re-equilibrated by allowing the inflow from the Atlantic again, generating 150 Gigawatts of hydropower from the Gibraltar dam.
Using latest BP statistics, this amount would be enough to completely replace Europe and Africa’s combined 1085 Terawatt-hours electricity produced from oil and coal in 2019, importantly boosting efforts against climate change in those regions.
With all those benefits it is not without reason he gave one of his books the title ‘Atlantropa ABC. Power, Land, Bread’. The only catch: Time projection for completion is an eye-watering 250 years!
However utopian Sörgel’s multigenerational intercontinental infrastructure project appears to us, he still was realistic about the adverse effects of the project’s gigantesque scale.
Removing the water from the Mediterranean Sea would cause a global sea level rise of up to one metre and leave saltier water behind, while the absence of underwater currents exchanging with the Atlantic would perturb the Gulf Stream resulting in a possibly warmer climate on the European peninsula. His calculations even predicted that the resulting uneven distribution of mass on the earth’s surface would marginally tilt the earth’s rotational axis and thereby its orbital trajectory in the Solar System.
Atlantropa can also not be seen in isolation from the geopolitical tensions at that time. While Europe’s majority feared most the American superpower, a minority also warned of Asia’s rise and hence saw a unification between Europe and Africa as a necessity to counteract emerging continents. But neo-colonialism for the ulterior motive of resource exploitation and raw materials procurement remains ethically wrong and leaves migration flows and wealth disparities unaddressed.
Sörgel’s oversized life-long dream for Europe and Africa’s joint future never became reality. A contemporary writer described him “to be one of those creative minds who break themselves away from a civic life by the power of their thoughts”.
Finding answers to global issues requires our generation to break free from conventions and pioneer into untouched technical, political, and economic territories – but with a moral philosophy. Draining the Mediterranean Sea could have been a step in this direction. If it had come to life, it would likely have changed the course of history.
Image: Luc Dewulf