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Modern Desert Dwellers: Resource Use and Management

ALTERNATIVE BENEFITS AND USES OF DESERTS

People living in deserts today vary qualitatively and quantitatively in their development trajectories and their use and management of desert resources (Box 2.7). Some groups are more or less successfully continuing in their traditional ways, often against great odds, while adapting to developments taking place around them. An example would be the Harasis nomads in Oman: some are maintaining their livestock while others are settling down, but all want education to understand, if not completely partake of, "modern" developments. Others, such as the Topnaars of the ephemeral Kuiseb River in Namibia, consciously maintain their traditional roots in villages along the river where old people oversee the livestock and bring up children not old enough to attend school (Henschel and others 2004). Irrigation farmers along the Nile continue farming while adapting to controlled river flow and its reduced silt load and increased salt deposition. Camel nomads of the Sahara continue long-distance trade and transport, but have shifted emphasis from camels and trade goods to motor vehicles and tourists. Similarly, a majority of bushmen (San) in Namibia are farm workers while others are members of a conservancy focused on wildlife conservation and tourism. Nevertheless, the San supplement their income using natural products from the veld and maintain their art and cultural traditions for themselves and for tourists. Because deserts harbour a number of diverse and seemingly exotic cultures living by a variety of lifestyles, they are inherently attractive to tourists from temperate climates. While some desert people continue their usual livelihoods and have "inadvertently" become tourist attractions, others are integrated directly into or are working for the tourism industry - with many levels in between.

Another culture whose presence has long been felt in deserts is that of mining. Wares of gold miners were carried across the Sahara to Europe by camel caravans for centuries. Salt mining produces another image associated with deserts and camels in northern Africa as part of a longestablished, integrated trade network. The coasts of South America and southern Africa were densely populated for a few years while ships from Europe removed guano accumulated over millennia, or as in Namibia, established whaling stations for a few years (Kinahan 2000). Another type of mining has become almost synonymous with deserts over the past several centuries, that of extracting oil and, more recently, uranium. The riches generated by these different types of mining supplied the income necessary to import missing resources from food to water and infrastructure. Large urban areas in deserts are now entirely dependent on imported resources, for example energy from oil for desalination of all domestic water and all other energy required by the city of Kuwait.

Several entirely different groups are taking advantage of the desert's vast landscape and unique scenery, dry air and almost continuous sunshine to relocate from less comfortable climates. With no traditional ties to these areas, retirees with adequate funds, those seeking a health cure, those seeking nearby recreational opportunities, or those just wishing to live in less arduous environments, are flocking to what were only lightly populated desert areas just a century before. Resorts, golf complexes and shopping megalopolises are also booming in desert environments (Box 2.8 and Box 2.9). These new uses are developing simultaneously with other uses of the vast open spaces of the desert, such as military training grounds or, as in western China, resettlement areas to open up "new frontiers", release population pressure elsewhere, and provide a buffer against neighbouring states. While deserts are opening up for urbanisation and associated use, areas including cites and towns bordering deserts may inreasingly find themselves within deserts as global climate change takes place.

Resource use and management in desert areas for "modern" development focuses on two key resources, one of which is very scarce and one of which is highly abundant. By definition, water in deserts is limiting . It is usually brought from great distances (like in southern California), often disadvantaging the people from where it comes (Reisner 1986). It may require construction of large dams cutting off people in the lower reaches, as in the Colorado River. Or it may result in drawdown of hard-rock or alluvial groundwater aquifers altering local availability as well as livelihoods of distant populations (de Villiers 2000). Desalination of water for domestic use is increasingly considered and extensively used where energy is abundant. Appropriate use of water in deserts will have to be re-evaluated in the decades to come, particularly as food production is an increasing competitive use for growing desert populations.

Energy is the second key resource essential for "modern" development and it is present in deserts, again almost by definition, in great abundance. To date, developers in deserts have largely ignored the abundant solar energy available and relied on increasingly expensive traditional sources of energy, like water, often brought from great distances, or otherwise on polluting the clear desert atmosphere - a main reason people come to the desert environment in the first place. Abundant solar energy could contribute to development not only of deserts but the entire globe (see Chapter 5).

 

 
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