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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

Water, ecosystems and sustainable development in arid and semi-arid areas

Marie-Françoise Courel

Texto completo

1October 2006

2The Sahara, Kalahari, Namib, Sinai, Karakum, Rub al Khali, Lut, Thar, Taklimakan, Gobi, Chihuahua, Great Basin, Mojave, Colorado, Atacama, Great Sandy and the Simpson: remarkable media landscape images of a “mineral universe” capture our imagination. Powerful images of infinite horizons, terrifying silences, sandstorms, dead valleys and from time to time, exceptional archaeological discoveries (Toumai in Chad) remind us of the historical depth of these supposedly empty spaces. Supported by the most modern techniques of remote detection, such portrayals hide the diversity of these spaces and their present and past plant, animal and human life.

  • 1 “The Desert or Immateriality of God”, writes Lamartine.
  • 2 French examples only.

3The desert is a myth in the West that covers a vast area of the absolute, the infinity, thought, “a mirror of the soul”, a double dimension that begins with space and brings us to philosophical thought. In the Bible, the desert is a geographical space and place of the relationship between God and man1; it is real and symbolic of Islam. Artists, writers, philosophers all “visit” the desert (Delacroix, Flaubert, Maupassant, Saint-John Perse, Camus, Isabelle Eberhardt, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Charles de Foucauld2).

4The desert, however, also represents emptiness. The political, cultural, artistic “desert”, is not talked about. Real or imaginary, the different meanings of the desert continued to expand as science began understanding the way in which these meanings worked. To begin with, Herodotus, who, already in the 5th century BC recalled an army that “disappeared in the desert”, followed by Alexander or Marco Polo. Faced with this myth, desert societies leave our civilisation with a concrete impression, starting with Genghis Khan.

5Let us remind ourselves of the human importance of deserts and let us not forget that human evolution took place at the steppes’ borders.

6Farming originated from “too much” forest and “too little” desert. In order to farm under the sun, with long and hot summers, the key to success is irrigation that is developed on the banks of large rivers, such as the Indus, Tiger, Euphrates, Tarim. Irrigation has always been a great achievement and an illustration of human genius that covers diversions, pipelines, dams, underground (water) collection, wells, draining devices from Iran and China similar to those from Taklimakan where there is much alluvial glacis at the foot of the mountains. These works of art will spread towards the West and will reach North Africa (foggara), Spain and then on to Hispanic America.

  • 3 An oasis is permanent water point where settled Nomads created an artificial ecosystem dedicated t (...)

7Humans adapt to the environment and their survival lies in their mobility. They are nomadic and lead their animals to scarce surface water in search of land. Oases, ports for exchange and meetings, mark their territory3.

  • 4 The former name for the Dakar rally, which no longer includes scientific aspects.
  • 5 On the initiative of André Citroën.

8Travellers, explorers and scientists have been investing in deserts since the 19th century, similar to industrialists who have been trying to uncover the secrets surrounding the “Great Desert”, which is the aim of “Trans-Saharan”, an uncompleted railway project. It will be followed by a “black cruise4” and a yellow cruise (1931) that passed through Asia via the Taklimakan and Gobi desert5, and recently, they have been investing in petrol.

  • 6 Jean-Claude Hureau, Le siècle de Théodore Monod [The century of Théodore Monod], Arles, Actes Sud, (...)

9Certain impassable regions gradually opened up to scientific missions. In the 20th century, quoting Theodore Monod, the naturalist and scholar for whom the Western Sahara was a place of experimentation, which allowed a comprehensive approach to be practiced, including fauna, flora, geology, geomorphology, climatology, prehistory and archaeology. He is certainly one of the greatest naturalists capable of understanding a biotope in all its dimensions with a “transversal, almost universal, scientific culture, at the crossroads of all the disciplines6”.

Desert and water

10In this international year of the desert, it is the moment for knowledge to be analysed, know-hows and practices to be evaluated in order to reflect on our work and methods, while exploiting the priority problems of our society.

11In regard to sustainable development, the issue of water in arid and semi-arid areas is a starting point for analysis and provides an exceptional context to establish future paths.

  • 7 Literal translation, “Blue gold”.

12Today, water is characterised by both change and internationalisation. Change is first of all institutional, in terms of the resource and different uses to which it is subjected (agricultural, industrial, domestic). This change is related to an increasing awareness of environmental issues. First and foremost, internationalisation comes before globalisation when it concerns water, despite management being the priority of the states. The international fora receive problems and issues, with water (or bleu7) establishing itself as the collective conscience like the most envied commodity of the 21st century despite the threat of “water wars” in the backdrop. For centuries, the supremacy of the “upstream flow” of water has been understood; power is in the hands of those in control of this vital resource.

13In arid and semi-arid areas, water does not escape these global issues, but illustrates a certain meaning.

  • 8 Infant mortality in these areas reaches up to 54 deaths on average per a thousand live children bo (...)

14Close to a third of the planet’s surface area is in arid or semi-arid areas and more than a billion of the world’s population live in these areas, in which strong demographic growth, poverty and infant mortality are combined8.

15Urbanisation, industrialisation and intensive farming have greatly developed in these different regions without always taking into account the fragility of dry ecosystems and available resources. Water and soil salinisation, pollution and accelerated desertification have been a testament of the current crisis for thirty years now.

16Thanks to the invention of appropriate techniques (karez in China or qanât in Iran) the world’s greatest civilisations, such as those of Central Asia and the Middle East have proven that it was possible to live in and develop an arid environment. These techniques are part of the local know-how that involves preserving and adapting to new environmental constraints as well to those imposed by modern society.

International conference

17An international conference, “Water, ecosystems and sustainable development in arid and semi-arid areas” will be held from 9th to 15th of October 2006 at the University of Xinjiang, China, organised by the University of Xinjiang, China, the University of Teheran, Iran and the École pratique des hautes études, France. The objectives of the conference are to study the state of the resources, to put forward recommendations for changes in agricultural techniques and practice and to analyse the human-water relationship in a historical perspective.

18The three academic institutions are basing their work on the common hypothesis that only one interdisciplinary approach (bringing together the natural science, physical science, the humanities and social science), should convey the different levels and interactions that the issue of water raises in arid and semi-arid areas.

19Another important aspect of this scientific collaboration is the fact that these institutions share common research topics. Water first and foremost, but also the founding of a model and a database, remote detection and new irrigation techniques.

The workshops

20For example, the following are some issues that will be discussed in the different workshops, comprising of several sessions and participants:

21The first workshop, “Water and Environment”, of which the aim is to “establish an overview of resources”, has raised much attention concerning climate change and its relationship with resources (namely underground water, salinisation issues, etc.). There are around a hundred papers and posters developing model diagrams or work carried out using space technology. These papers are available in research centres around the world.

22Among the issues raised by these analyses, many concern the future of badly drained soil, which results in water becoming salinised and land becoming sterile – processes that could be irreversible (Tarim basin). This phenomenon is highlighted by the absence of pollutants accumulated in certain river basins in India or Rajasthan, for example.

23The second workshop, “Agricultural practices”, outlining the developments in techniques and practices, has sparked several contributions. Among the topics covered by researchers, the future of large overexploited aquifers will be considered for intensive farming, such as that of wheat for example, intended for export and not adapted to local needs and which questions the future of this non-renewable reserve.

24In this workshop, virtual water will also be discussed. Is it the new water of tomorrow? Is there a world strategy for transferring this resource?

25The third workshop “Water and civilisation” is dedicated to the “human-water relationship in a historical perspective”. It combines contributions from historians working on ancestral techniques, specialists of ancient civilisations of geographers and jurists. Architecture and hydraulic infrastructures, traditional technologies and cultural practices will also be discussed.

  • 9 Karl Wittfogel demonstrates that the state emerged to regulate matters of irrigation.

26The “Silk Road”, also known as the “water road” that connects the West to Asia, is at the centre of the debate. As for developing ideas, the workshop will welcome a debate on the relationship between the control of water and the emergence of the state, a debate, which has been generating the interests of archeologists and anthropologists since the 1930s9.

27Finally, the workshop, “Future challenges and perspectives”, focuses on the large global policy issues of water management.

  • 10 See “rés-EAU-ville” GDR 2524 CNRS, «La mise en patrimoine de l’eau, Journée d’études», March 2007.

28This workshop will address the organisation of water management at international, national and local levels, as well as the new institutional regulations and concepts, taking the environmental dimension into account (heritage management, global public goods10).

29The debates in this workshop will illustrate the economic, social, environmental and political challenges of water in the critical context of arid or semi-arid areas.

The challenges of water: towards a science of complex systems

  • 11 Réseau National Systèmes Complexes.

30Water is a complex object, which must be addressed as a complex system, far from sectorial approaches11. Structured into several levels of organisation and made up of heterogeneous entities that are themselves complex, water comes in the form of natural systems of the ecosphere and artificial systems constructed by man.

31More particularly in arid and semi-arid areas, water involves a large number of different entities (hydrogeology, climate, uses and management) interacting in a complex manner including non-linear interactions, feedback loops, and memory of past interactions. These interactions could be combined to present a holistic behaviour that renders any attempts of explanation futile, by the mere behaviour of parties.

32All issues raised will be widely discussed during this international conference, which will take place in one of the most deserted regions of Central Asia, where the control over water has been a challenge for thousands of years now. Similar to Xinjiang, these arid areas have been one of the greatest challenges to science in the 21st century, that is to say, the management of a resource that is becoming increasingly threatened.

  • 12 Théodore Monod, Le Fer de Dieu, Arles, Actes Sud, 1997.
  • 13 Théodore Monod, Méharées, Arles, Actes Sud, 1998.

“Night has fallen in the desert now, and the red flower of a fire is ignited at the foot of our mountain and bed of fallen rocks. It has become cool, the wind has picked up. The long stretch of sand pressed against the relief, in a few strides, I will return to a plain where, I am sure that the discussion of my companions will evoke other mysteries, problems, endless research projects that are open to man’s need to discover and understand12.”
“Similarities… The polar world, oceans of ice and deserts of snow, would complete the trilogy of spaces that control the continual movement, navigation, nomadism, eternal escape, day in and out, through relentless re-emerging circles, never crossing a horizon in front of you that seems to wait for you, taunting you, but is never waited for (…) In the Sahara, the impressions of the cold countries are even more precise and rare. First of all the snow in the sand dune (…) The sebkha, bottom of the dried up salt lake (…) takes on the appearance of an icefield (…). And beaches of sandy regs, fine, but lightly condensed on the surface, patted down with this indefinable padded and crisp compression that the foot recognises as snow13.”

Notas

1 “The Desert or Immateriality of God”, writes Lamartine.

2 French examples only.

3 An oasis is permanent water point where settled Nomads created an artificial ecosystem dedicated to mixed farming as a result of a perfect control over water, around agglomerations, trading hubs and actual “ports” where caravans and nomadic groups “let go”.

4 The former name for the Dakar rally, which no longer includes scientific aspects.

5 On the initiative of André Citroën.

6 Jean-Claude Hureau, Le siècle de Théodore Monod [The century of Théodore Monod], Arles, Actes Sud, 2002.

7 Literal translation, “Blue gold”.

8 Infant mortality in these areas reaches up to 54 deaths on average per a thousand live children born, i. e. twice as much as in non-arid areas and 10 times more than in the developed countries.

9 Karl Wittfogel demonstrates that the state emerged to regulate matters of irrigation.

10 See “rés-EAU-ville” GDR 2524 CNRS, «La mise en patrimoine de l’eau, Journée d’études», March 2007.

11 Réseau National Systèmes Complexes.

12 Théodore Monod, Le Fer de Dieu, Arles, Actes Sud, 1997.

13 Théodore Monod, Méharées, Arles, Actes Sud, 1998.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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