Whether global deserts will follow a path of intensive development, industrial-scale agriculture projects, and mega-cities attracting massive immigration at the expense of long-term sustainability, or an alternative path of sustainable development, spurred by a “sense of place” that is sensitive to the uniqueness of the desert environment and its traditional cultures, is going to be determined by largely our common visions and collective actions taken to fulfil them.
Current desert development and conservation seems to suffer from a lack of vision and coordinated programmes. Development schemes, such as programmes for irrigated agriculture or mass tourism, tend to spring up haphazardly with few attempts to coordinate them or to plan for their long-term sustainability. Immigration to the desert is often random and opportunity-driven, and new settlements sprawl over valuable landscapes and create problems for water supply and waste management. Without proper planning and a vision of sustainability, traditional lifestyles may wither and indigenous knowledge may become lost, victims of short-term, ephemeral economic projects.
A continuation of the energy- and water-intensive development model, and a non-renewable model in which water with subsidized costs is used for low-value purposes, will not be viable, as they lead to even more severe resource depletion and degradation. On the other extreme, increased isolationism with exclusive reliance on traditional knowledge runs the risk of losing access to new sustainable technologies and might lead to diminished opportunities for younger generations, and eventually, to reduced livelihood and economic development options.
A new, more balanced vision is needed, where deserts and their inhabitants are valued by both governments and civil society; where sustainability and the well-being of desert people are given the highest priority; where desert development is guided by a long planning horizon and based on an acute understanding of the limitations and potential of these very unique environments; where market forces are harnessed to promote desert-compatible development such as low impact services or high-technology development; where traditional livelihoods are given the opportunity to survive with dignity; and where wetlands, oases, desert mountains and other fragile environments at risk are protected.
Decisions can and should be made not to change the desert, but to live with it and preserve its resources for the future. The active participation of community groups should include taking charge of their own development, planning for risks, and adapting to changing conditions while preserving their deep connections to these remarkable landscapes. The challenge remains to harness not only local, but also global policy mechanisms and market incentives to develop a viable future for deserts, where both environmental conservation and economic development are achieved.