Pushing back the desert frontiers
The bazaars of Baghdad on a hot summer day are not as romantic as some of us may have been led to think. There is colour enough, it is true. Vendors move leisurely about selling their gay and exotic wares. The costumes and the strange music weave much the kind of spell the average tourist expects. But it is really poor stuff compared to the glory and glamour which once belonged to this part of the world.
For in its heyday, this region was the centre of a great civilization and power. Some 70 miles to the south lay the ancient city of Babylon, with its magnificent imperial palace, its priceless art treasures and the famous Hanging Gardens said to have been one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Somewhere to the south of here, too, is reputed to have been the Garden of Edenthe cradle of mankind.
Once, the whole region between the Tigris and Euphrates was rich, green and productive. A system of canals carried water wherever it was needed. At the height of its glory, Babylon was even called the "granary of the world". But there is little evidence of it now.
Today the canals are gonebroken, destroyed and buried beneath the advancing sands. The rich alluvial soil has drifted away, carried off by the hot winds blowing up from the Persian Gulf and by every other wind that blows. Now the desert presses in on all sides. There is nothing unusual about this. The same story could be told in Syria, which holds some of the grandest ruins of the ancient world such as Baalbeck and the graveyard of a "Hundred Dead Cities", an area of about 1, 000, 000 acres lying between Aleppo, Antioch and Hama.
It could be told in the Lebanon, where the Forests of the Cedars retreated before axe, fire, hoe and the voracious black-eared goat, until today only a few remnants of the famous extensive forest are left.
The same story could be told in Egypt and indeed wall over the Middle East, in India, in China, in North Africa and in the New World. It happens everywhere that men take from the soil and fail to replace the vegetation that binds the soil, or where the water is allowed to rush indisciplined across the land.
As Dr. W. C. Lowdermilk, land erosion consultant of the U. N. Food and Agriculture Organization has said, the problem is not so much one of conquest of natural deserts as of reconquest of man-made deserts that have resulted from neglect and misuse, where "the recklessness, ignorance and hunger-drive of man have supplemented the process of wind and water erosion in destroying vegetation and soils, resulting ill regional suicide."
"Mankind has strode across the face of the earth for 7, 000 years," Dr. Lowdermilk adds, "reaping where he has not planted and destroying what he has not made. In occupying new lands one after the other, one section of mankind has looted his fellows and skimmed off the cream and left thin milk for generations that follow. Man has tended to destroy the sources of his existence."
Thus, ancient Cyrenaica used to produce three harvests a year ; today it is largely unproductive. In Australia, the semi-desert areas are creeping forward and engulfing the good land because of the overstocking of cattle and deforestation. Every year, rivers in South Africa and Latin America carry millions of tons of top-soil into the sea ; one can actually watch the soil being carried away. Through careless exploitation in the past, vast areas of formerly good land in the United States have become unproductive "dust bowls". In South Africa, the situation is critical because of the merciless exploitation by farmers and landowners. And according to conservation authorities, a national catastrophe due to soil erosion is perhaps more imminent in South Africa than in any other country.
Today more countries in the world are confronted with problems caused by aridity than by any other characteristic of climate. It is estimated that the arid and semiarid regions of the world make up more than a quarter of the land surface of the globe. There are the extreme instances — like the Central Sahara or Libyan deserts, the Takla Makan in northwest China, or the Rub' Al Khali in Saudi Arabia-where practically nothing grows and where a few nomads survive under the most primitive conditions. Only radical scientific discoveries may some day make these areas productive to man.
But fringing these deserts are semi-arid areas which, except for short rainy periods each year, are dry as dust. They support a heavy population whose people live only by the most careful use of the water and sources of power available. Because of the enormous pressure of increasing population, it is more urgent than ever before that the unproductive lands should be brought back into the service of mankind.
It is the same problem which inspired the prophet to say: "In the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the glowing sands shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water; in the habitation of jackals where they lay shall be grass with reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there..." The ancient prophets were the wise men of their time. They kept an eye on the community and it was their business to see that provision was made for the welfare of future generations. They may have lacked the scientific knowledge of our days but they had judgment and wisdom.
And now in the 20th century, the call has gone out again to bring water to the thirsty ground. For at a time in history when populations are increasing at the rate of some 55, 000 a day, civilization is running a race against time and famine.
The call is being answered, however, with all the resources of scientific knowledge and engineering. Governments in many countries are giving the problem high priority. But unrelated local attempts to wrest production from the dry lands cannot be expected to achieve the best results. This is a case, if ever there was one, for international cooperation and exchange of experience.
At the General Conference of UNESCO at Beirut in 1948, the Indian delegation put forward a proposal which led Unesco to set up an advisory research committee to guide UNESCO's arid zone programme. This committee consists of nine scientists from Australia, Egypt, France, Great Britain, India, Israel, Mexico, Peru and the U. S. A.
The committee saw two major difficulties today impeding the world struggle to make the lands of the arid zones productive : lack of information on what is being done, and insufficient research on the international level. Unesco therefore set itself two objectives :
First, to seek out and make available all the experience and expert knowledge gained from the many experiments and projects carried out in many parts of the world.
Second, to help the development and expansion of desert research stations, so that they would devote time and study to certain problems affecting several countries at least. Each year, Unesco selects a particular field of research for study. The first field chosen, in 1951, was water — the one problem common to all arid and semi-arid areas. Hydrology concerns itself with both water on the earth and below it, but less is known about underground water resources than surface water. Scientists do know that there are vast seas of underground water in almost all areas of the world including deserts, but much is still to be done on studying these resources.
UNESCO therefore commissioned eight scientists to study and report on current research on this subject. Last April, an international symposium of scientists met at Ankara, Turkey, to discuss their findings. The results will provide research workers with the first comprehensive picture of what is being done to find out how underground water behaves, and the possibilities of using it effectively in arid zones.
But water is not the only problem or the only answer for the parched lands of our planet. "The significant characteristic of the arid zone," said the Indian delegate at UNESCO's Beirut Conference in 1948, "is that it is constantly expanding and is sterilizing the adjacent fertile and cultivable areas at a considerable pace." The search for improved plant species for agriculture to halt the world's marching sands is one of the most important problems.
That is why UNESCO has chosen plant ecology — the relation of plants to their environment — as the special arid zone research theme for this year. A group of ten plant ecologists are surveying this question and assembling experimental and research data on promising species and strains which thrive under dry conditions in one area and which may be profitably introduced into others.
Australia offers an interesting example of the introduction of plants native to other areas. Dr. B. T. Dickson, plant physiologist from that country, pointed this out at a symposium on desert research held in Jerusalem last May under the auspices of the Research Council of Israel, in cooperation with UNESCO. He made the following revealing statement: "Every cereal, vegetable and fruit crop now grown has been introduced, none is indigenous. So too have been many pasture grasses and legumes, particularly for better rainfall areas."
"One may hear joking reference to the need to find pasture plants which will remain green all the year round without water, and which can be sown from a saddle bag and can establish themselves readily. The point is that new plants, to have a bare chance of establishment, must be in equilibrium with the environment, in other words, immigrants capable of ready naturalization. To expect more is to end in frustration."
UNESCO is also interested in research projects for developing sources of power in arid zones by utilizing wind and solar energy, and will probably study this question fully next year.
The U. N. expanded technical assistance programme for economic development has provided a large number of missions directly concerned with the development of the arid zone. In the arid Marbial Valley of Haiti, the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization have joined UNESCO in demonstrating how to improve agricultural and health methods, avoid erosion and care for the soil. In Libya, a joint FAO-UNESCO mission is studying plans for the expansion of the Sidi Mesri arid zone research station.
The FAO is now engaged in a gigantic international battle with desert locusts. The most dangerous plague of desert locusts for more than a century has attacked crops from the Nile Delta to India, threatening to destroy the whole food supply of half-a-dozen agricultural countries. The locusts have made a single feeding ground out of extensive areas in French Somaliland, Eritrea, the Sudan, Aden, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan.
To meet this threat, international action has been organized on a scale unprecedented in peacetime, the FAO reports. From Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Irak, Saudi Arabia and Egypt aid has come to help save the crops of Jordan, one of the most seriously infested lands. India, Pakistan, U. S. A. and U. S. S. R. have sent insecticides and equipment to Iran where more than 200, 000, 000 acres are infested with desert locust eggs.
Reports reach UNESCO from all corners of the earth telling of national governments sponsoring projects to save or reclaim their land. In Cyprus, large-scale erosion has been checked by destroying herds of wild goats and planting trees on the steep hillsides. Turkey is establishing an institute of hydrology and geology which will organize research and teaching on problems of the use of underground water for its semiarid central region.
Research work on the arid regions and research stations are being strengthened in places as far distant as India and Chile, Australia and the Sahara desert. Eight of these have now been linked up directly with UNESCO's programe of research development. They are in Algeria, Egypt, French West Africa, India, Israel and the United States. In addition to coordinating their research with UNESCO, these centres will accept visiting scientists and fellowship holders in arid zone questions. By also exchanging their scientists and technicians with other institutions carrying out related work, they will become the nucleus of the first team of internationally trained arid zone specialists.
By the sharing of engineers and scientific knowledge on an international scale, all nations have a chance of turning a world of want into a world of plenty. For all nations are interdependent in the fight for food and life.
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