Water, ecosystems and sustainable development in arid and semi arid zones

Water, ecosystems and sustainable development in arid and semi arid zones

Sahara, Kalahari, Namib, Sinai, Karakum, Rub al Khali, Lut, Thar, Taklamakan, Gobi, Chihuahua, Great Basin, Mojave, Colorado, Atacama, Great Sandy, Simpson…

Distributed by the media, some splendid pictures of countrysides of a «mineral universe»… strike our imagination. Some powerful pictures of infinite horizons, frightening silences, sand winds, dead valleys … occasionally, some exceptional archeological discoveries (Toumai in Chad) remind us of the historical insight of these allegedly empty spaces. Backed up by the most modern remote sensing, these presentations dissimulate the diversity of these spaces, their present and past plant, animal and human life.

The desert is a myth in the West that covers a vast field of the absolute, infinity, reflection, «soul's mirror», a double dimension that starts with space and takes us along a philosophical reflection. In the Bible, the desert is a geographical space and place of relation between God and man1 ; it is a real and symbolic framework of Islam…Artists, writers, philosophers «visit» the desert. ..(Delacroix, Flaubert, Maupassant, Saint John Perse, Camus, I Eberhardt, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Charles de Foucauld2)

But it also represents emptiness: don't we talk about the political, cultural, artistic «desert». Real or imaginary, the different meanings of desert continued to widen as and when science understood their working better. To begin with, Herodotus who already in the Vth century B.C. recalls an army that «disappears in the desert»…followed by Alexander or Marco Polo. Faced with the myth, the desert societies mark our civilization with a concrete impression, Gengis Khan to start with…

Let us not play down the human importance of the deserts and let us not forget that human evolution is done in the open steppes' borders.
The first agriculture was born between the «too much» of forest and the «too little» of the desert. In these sun agricultures with long and hot summers, the key to success is irrigation developed on the banks of big rivers, Indus, Tiger, Euphrates, Tarim…It is always a great achievement and expression of the human genius: derivations, canalizations, dams, receiving transfer tunnel, wells, draining devices, infiltration gallery from Iran and China like those from Taklamakan where the alluvial glacis abound at the foot of the mountains. These works of art will spread towards the West and touch South Africa (foggara), Spain to join Hispanic America…

Man adapts himself to the harshness of the milieu and his survival lies in his mobility. He is nomadic; he leads his animals to the rare surface water, in search of pasture. His territory is closely-knit by oasis, real ports for exchanges and meetings. 3

Travellers, explorers and scientists invest the deserts from the XIXth century just like the industrialists who try to uncover their secrets: linking the«Great Desert», is the objective of a «Trans-Saharan» aborted railway project; it will be followed by a «black cruise»2 and Yellow cruise (1931) which through Asia went through Takla-Makan and Gobi desert5 and recently petrol…

Some insurmountable regions opened up progressively to scientific missions …In the XXth century let us quote Theodore Monod, the naturalist and scholar whose western Sahara was the place of experimentation of a global approach: fauna, flora, geology, geomorphology, climatology, prehistory, archeology…He is certainly one of the greatest naturalists capable of apprehending a biotope in all its dimensions with a “transversal, quasi universal, scientific culture, at the crossroads of all the disciplines»6

- desert and water

In this international year of the deserts, now is the time for the evaluation of knowledge, an evaluation of know-hows and practices to take stock of our work and methods while opening up to the priority problems of our societies.

In a perspective of sustainable development, the object water in arid and semi arid zones constitutes a privileged «input» for analysis and provides an exceptional framework to establish future orientations.

The panorama of water today is characterized by a growing mutation and internationalization. Mutation is first of all institutional concerning resource and different uses that we subject it to (agricultural, industrial, domestic). This mutation goes along with an increasing awareness of environmental issues. Internationalization lies above all in the globalization of the issue of water, even if the management is the privilege of the States. The problematic and the stakes are appropriate by the international instances and the or bleu (blue gold) stands out in the collective conscience like the most coveted commodity of the XXIst century with the threat of «water wars in the backdrop». Men who know that the power lies in the control of this vital resource have since thousands of years, understood the supremacy of «the upstream of the rivers».

In the arid and semi arid zones, water does not escape these planetary stakes. It presents significant particularities.

Close to one third of the surface area of the planet is in arid or semi arid zone and more than one billion of the world population lives in these zones which merge strong demographic growth, poverty and infant mortality7
Urbanization, industrialization and intensive agriculture have developed a lot in these different regions without even taking the fragility of the dry ecosystems and the limits of the available resources into account. Salinization of the waters and soils, pollution, accelerated desertification since thirty years testify to the current crisis.

Thanks to the invention of appropriate techniques (karez in China or qanât in Iran) the greatest civilizations of the world like those of Central Asia and Middle East have proven that it was possible to live in and develop an arid milieu. These techniques constitute the local know-how that involves preserving and adapting to new environmental constraints as well to those imposed by modern societies.

- International conference

International conference «Water, ecosystems and sustainable development in arid and semi arid zones»
9-15 October 2006 University of Xinjiang China

Organized by the University of Xinjiang China, University of Teheran Iran and Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes France (Practical School of Higher Education)

The conference organized by the University of Xinjiang, University of Teheran and l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes on the issue of water in arid or semi arid zone has the following objectives:
- To draw up an inventory of the resources
- to propose a panorama of changes in agricultural techniques and practices
- to analyze the man/water relation in a historical perspective

The three academic centers are based on a strong common hypothesis: only one interdisciplinary approach associating natural sciences, physical sciences, science of erudition, human and social sciences is able to articulate the different levels and interactions that the issue of water raises in arid and semi arid zone.

Another privileged element of this scientific collaboration, the fact that the three university establishments share themes of common research: water first of all, modeling and database, remote sensing, new techniques of irrigation…

The workshops

As an example, here are some questions that will be touched upon in the different workshops made up of several sessions, given the number of participants:

1) the first workshop, Water and environment whose objective is to «establish an inventory of the resource» has raised many responses concerning the climatic change and its relations with the resource (especially on underground waters, questions of salinization, etc). About a hundred communications and posters develop modeling diagrams or works using space techniques. The research centres of the world over propose these communications.
Among the questions raised by these analyses, many concern the fate of the badly drained soil which bring about the salinization of waters and the sterilization of lands that have become irreversible (Tarim basin). Isn't this phenomenon accentuated by the absence of evacuation of polluants that get accumulated in certain river basins in India, in Rajasthan for example?

2) The second workshop, Agricultural practices which proposes a panorama of changes in techniques and practices has given rise to several contributions. Among the subjects dealt with by the researchers we will select the future of the big overexploited aquifers for an intensive agriculture, that of wheat for example, meant for export and not adapted for the local needs and which stakes the future of this non renewable reserve.

In this workshop there will also be some talk about virtual water. Is it the new water of tomorrow? Is there a world strategy in the transfer of this resource?

3) The third workshop Water and civilization is dedicated to the «man/ water relation in a historical perspective». It brings together contributions of historians working on the ancestral techniques, specialists of ancient civilizations of geographers and jurists. There will also be a discussion on architecture and hydraulic infrastructures, traditional technologies and cultural practices.

In the middle of the debates is the «silk route that one could also call the water route» which would enable linking the West to Asia. As for the evolution of ideas, the workshop will lead to a debate on the relation between the control of water and emergence of the State, debate that kindles the interest of archeologists and anthropologists since the 1930s 8

4) Finally, the workshop Future stakes and prospective concerns the big world orientations of water management.

This workshop will deal with the organization of the water management at the international, national and local level as well as the new institutional modalities (regulation) and concepts that take the environmental dimension into account (heritage management, world public properties9 ).
The debate of this workshop illustrates the economic, social, environmental and political stakes of water in the critical context of arid or semi arid zones

- the stakes of water : towards a science of complex systems

The object water is a complex object which has to be dealt with like a complex system, far from the sectorial approaches10. Structured into several levels of organization and made up of heterogenous entities that are themselves complex, the object water covers natural systems of ecosphere and the artificial systems constructed by man.

More particularly in the arid and semi-arid zones, this object presents a large number of differentiated entities (hydrogeology, climate, uses, management…) interacting in a complex manner: non linear interactions, feedback loops, memory of past interactions…These interactions could be merged and present a holistic behaviour that renders any attempt to explain futile by the mere behaviour of the parts.

All the questions raised will be broadly dealt with during this International conference which will take place in one of the most desertic regions of Central Asia where the control over water is a reality since thousands of years.

In the eyes of Xinjiang, these arid regions are one of the greatest challenges to science in the XXIst century: the management of a resource that is undergoing an increasing threat.

«Night has fallen now in the desert, and the red flower of a fire is ignited at the foot of our mountain of blocks and shingles. It has become cool, the wind has picked up. By a long sand casting pressed against the relief, I am going to return in a few strides to a plain where, Im sure, the conversation of my companions will come to evoke other mysteries, other problems, other research projects endlessly open to man's need to discover and understand»

Théodore Monod, Le Fer de Dieu (Iron of God), Arles, Actes Sud, 1997


«Similarities…The polar world, oceans of ice and snow deserts, would complete the trilogy of spaces that command the perpetual movement, navigation, nomadism, eternal escape, day in and day out, through relentlessly re-emerging circles, never transgressed by a horizon that precedes you, sometimes seems to wait for you, to scoff at you, but never gets caught waited upon (….) In Sahara, the impressions of the cold countries are even more precise and rarer. First of all the snow in the sand dune (….) The sebkha, bottom of the dried up salt lake (…) takes the air of an icefield (…). And beaches of regs filled with sand, very fine but lightly consolidated in the surface, settles under the step with this indefinable padded and grating compression that reminds the foot of some types of snow. » (extract of Méharées).

Jarry I., Théodore Monod, Paris, Payot/Voyageurs (Travellers), 1990


1 « The Desert or Immateriality of God» writes Lamartine…
2 French examples only
3 Oasis, permanent water point where sedentarized nomads have created an artificial ecosystem thanks to a perfect control over water, dedicated to polyculture, around agglomerations, trade centres and real «ports » where the caravans and nomadic groups « let go».
4 Antecedent with Dakar rally which doesnt have the scientific dimension any longer
5 At André Citroën's initiative
6 Jean-Claude Hureau, Le siècle de Théodore Monod (The century of Théodore Monod), Paris, Muséum d'Histoire naturelle
7 The infant mortality in these zones reach 54 deaths on an average for thousand births of live children, i.e. twice as much as in the non arid zones and 10 times more than in the developed countries.
8 Karl Wittfogel tries to show that the State had to necessarily emerge to organize the irrigation

9 See rés-EAU-ville » GDR 2524 CNRS, La mise en patrimoine de l'eau, Journée d'études, March 2007
10 Réseau National Systèmes Complexes
11 Théodore Monod, Le Fer de Dieu (Iron of God), Arles, Actes Sud, 1997