A Long Look at the World's Arid Lands

Article excerpt

UNESCO's pioneering work in arid zone research, begun over 40 years ago, was the starting point for a continuing effort to mobilize science in the cause of the global environment

HUMANKIND has always encountered aridity, and over the ages has learned how to come to terms with it by using water wisely. Until very recently, however, the industrialized world viewed arid regions as little more than the impoverished habitat of a few nomads, or as a place of adventure or meditation for those wishing to follow in the footsteps of people like Lawrence of Arabia and the French explorer and missionary Father Charles de Foucauld. Scientific knowledge of the desert was limited to geographical descriptions. Only a handful of dreamers wondered how these desolate areas could be used. There was plenty of room elsewhere.

The situation changed after the Second World War with the emergence of newly independent nations facing serious demographic and food supply problems. In 1948, UNESCO's General Conference in Beirut adopted a proposal put forward by India--and considered surprising by many at the time--to the effect that UNESCO should examine the possibility of establishing an international institute for the arid zone. The following year a group of experts was invited to Paris to study the question. The panel wisely ruled out the idea of a centralized institute located far from most of the areas concerned, which are widely scattered across the globe, and recommended instead that an international advisory committee be established. The new body's first session was held in Algiers in April 1951. This was the origin of UNESCO's Arid Zone Research Programme.

Few people today remember the achievements of this programme. Leading scientists from different countries and disciplines served on the advisory committee, under whose guidance a series of innovative activities was carried out for a modest outlay during more than a decade.

The first task was to draw up a complex and detailed map showing the world's arid zones and their degree of aridity. This map was based on an innovative projection of the globe that resembles the four quarters of an orange. It became the programme's emblem, and appears on some thirty documents in the "Arid Zone Research Series" published by UNESCO between 1953 and 1969. Today these books with their sand-coloured covers are almost impossible to find, but their contents have lost none of their validity and they may be the most important legacy of UNESCO's activities in this period. They examine subjects such as hydrology, climatology, plant ecology, solar and wind energy, nomads, and human psychology and physiology. One of them is devoted to the first world symposium on climate change--a topic very much in the news today--which was held in Rome in 1961. Another contains a "History of Land Use in Arid Regions", which describes the long struggle for survival in these hostile environments in Egypt, Mesopotamia, central Asia, Peru, Mexico and on the Indus.

The first steps

UNESCO did more than publish reviews of research and promote the exchange of information. It also encouraged scientific research in the field and trained hundreds of specialists. Above all, in 1957 it upgraded what had hitherto been one programme among many to the rank of a "Major Project" with additional funding. This new status helped to raise the profile of activities that were already under way as well as spurring interdisciplinary research and the creation of national centres to promote the development of arid regions. The Indian Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur and Israel's Negev Desert Institute in Beersheba were established under the auspices of UNESCO, which also lent support to other bodies, such as the Egyptian Desert Institute in Cairo.

The Major Project on arid lands paved the way for technical co-operation between the industrialized countries of the North and the impoverished nations of the South--today a firmly established practice--and laid the groundwork for a horizontal exchange of skills and experience between the latter. …

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