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Learning to Love Deserts

A satellite image showing the Wadi Rum desert and irrigated farmland in Jordan. (Image credit: NASA)

Editor’s Note: This is a bit different than our usual posts analyzing the latest government policies and emerging risks. But as the 15th UN Conference on Desertification begins this week, we thought it was an important reminder of the beauty and importance of one of the geographies we often examine through a climate security lens. 

By Peter Schwartzstein

I used to hate deserts. They scorch in the day and then chill at night. They can infuriate in ways few other landscapes do, that pesky sand sneaking into every book, bag, and electronic cranny. Most importantly (to me), it can be hard to disassociate these thirsty, hostile-looking expanses from death and disaster. Through years of environmental reporting in mostly arid or semi-arid parts of the Middle East and Africa, I thought I’d seen far too many desert dwellers struggle with the harshness of their surroundings to perceive these places as anything other than unpleasant sufferfests– particularly as climate change makes them that bit hotter and thirstier. What is there to like about environments that appear almost calculated to pitch their inhabitants against one another?

My view began to shift a few years ago on a reporting trip in Sudan when I got stranded on a sand-clogged Saharan road miles from the nearest village. With hours to kill before assistance arrived and no internet access, unread books, or willing conversationalists, I took the time to size up the scenery. The penny finally dropped. There’s a richness to the flora and fauna – the gum arabic-giving acacia; menacing deathstalker scorpions; the irresistible insolence of the fennec fox – that had always passed me by. There’s a power to those enormous skies, one that’s accentuated by the ostensibly monotone coloring of the land beneath them. It’s no wonder, I now understood, that the idea of celestial deities originated among desert dwellers, who had that sky but few forests, rivers, or other majestic landscapes in which to see their god(s). 

The more I work in arid areas, the more I even grasp how they provide for their inhabitants with fodder and medicinal plants – at the same time as they sometimes foster cooperation among communities who ‘ought’ to be experiencing anything but. For all the pickup in farmer-herder and inter-herder conflict in the Sahel, it’s arguable that there should be more violence given the scale of governance failures and resource fluctuations. One can’t help but imagine that the spirit engendered by long-term exposure to relative or absolute scarcity has gone a long way in stifling some tensions.

For generations at least, drylands have been vilified and cast as spaces that have been rendered useless by foolhardy overgrazing. I’d partly bought into that flawed narrative. And while climate stresses – and responses to them – threaten to eventually turn deserts and desert-adjacent areas into the places their detractors always said they were, the experience of many desert peoples will likely hold the worst social and economic fallouts at bay for significantly longer than the residents of some more temperate climes might manage.

As a fan of lusher, greener environments, I might never embrace sand with the same gusto as mountains, but the immediate association with misery, the lack of appreciation for desert beauty? That’s over. 

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