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Deserts are the Home of Diverse Cultures and Livelihoods

Deserts are home to many human populations of the world. Currently around 500 million people live in deserts and desert margins, totalling 8 per cent of the global population. Among the greatest contributions of desert cultures to the world are the three “religions of the Book”, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which have had tremendous impact far beyond their areas of origin.

Humans have learnt to survive in deserts, compensating for their poor morphological and physiological adaptations to desert climates with a panoply of behavioural, cultural and technological adaptations to the dry environments. Traditionally, desert livelihoods were of three types — hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and farmers. Hunter-gatherer tribes, such as the Topnaar of the Namib, are known for their in-depth knowledge of local food plants and wild animal species. Pastoralism, on the other hand, makes use of domesticated animals, such as camels or goats, to produce products such as milk, leather, and meat. Desert agriculture occurs mostly around oases and desert rivers, which often provide silt and nutrients through flooding cycles.

These ways of life, however, are changing rapidly, from hunter-gatherers to cattle ranchers, and from nomadism and transhumance to tourist-targeted activities. Irreversible damages have been caused in previously good agricultural grounds in deserts by large-scale modern developments, such as dam constructions for water and energy supplies. In recent times, extraction of minerals, use of the vast open spaces for military facilities, energy-intensive urban developments, and tourism, have increasingly changed the ways of life for some desert populations.

Resource use and management in deserts for these developments focuses and depends heavily on water and energy, two key resources. Recent increases in the pace of desert urbanization are the result of the relocation of expansive land developments, mining and power engineering, the growth of transport infrastructure, and improvements in water extraction and supply technologies. The high, or even complete, dependency of large desert cities on imported resources has become economically feasible as they generate sufficient income from their economic activities.

Due to the extremely slow rate of biological activity in deserts, these ecosystems take decades, if not centuries, to recover from even slight damage, such as the tracks left behind by an off-road vehicle on a lichen-covered hill. Moreover, because traditional livelihoods in deserts require large areas, they are particularly vulnerable to political and environmental changes. A good example of this is how the lives of nomadic herders in the Gobi floundered under the changes from Mongolia’s transition from a socialist system to a market-driven economy.

© UNEP 2006