By Franz Schurmann
Prediction #74 for Tuesday, August 22nd, 2000
We're All Going To Be Living At Ever Closer Quarters With Each Other
In a recent interview with Newsweek Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji predicted that if China cannot control the encroaching desert it will sooner or later have to abandon its capital Beijing.
Bone-dry sand dunes, common all over northwest China, have now appeared 66 miles north of the capital. They are moving southward at a velocity of 2.1 miles every year. That means the first dunes will reach Beijing in around 16-17 years from now.
Many environmentalists hold that desertification does not result from the spread of existing deserts but from fragile ecosystems caused by human practices. Yet historical and archaeological evidence indicates that desertification has been going on relentlessly for some 5000 years. This means efforts to stop it have little chance of succeeding.
Global maps indicate that most of the world's deserts are contained within two bands. Going from west to east the first band lies between the latitudes of 20 and 40 degrees. At its western extremity it includes the deserts of the American southwest and northern Mexico. Most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere is water or grassland. In the Eastern Hemisphere the band includes the Sahara, Arabian, Iranian, Baluchistan, Sindh and Rajasthan deserts.
At this band's eastern border a similar desert band appears to the north between latitudes 30 and 50 degrees. This band contains the Takla Makan and Gobi deserts. Beijing is at the eastern extreme of this band. The reason for the band shift may be linked to the tectonic pressure exerted by the Indian sub-continent on the still rising Himalayas.
There are Sahara Desert cave paintings going back some 5000 years stretching through southern Algeria, northern Niger, Chad and southern Libya. They not only show plant growth but animals like elephants, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses and others that need large quantities of water. Many researchers now believe that most of the ancient Sahara humans escaped desertification by migrating southward into the Niger River region and eastward into the Nile region.
Biblical and archaeological evidence indicates that some 3000 years ago there was much more water in the Middle East than now. But already then desertification was evident. By the 1200's C.E. water shortages had become so serious that the Mongol conquerors were blamed for having destroyed the irrigation canals. Yet even under the Mongols there were thriving cultures where now the desert alone reigns.
Some 2000 years ago there was a thriving Buddhist civilization along the Niya riber in the southern Takla Makan. Now the river is dry and the sand even more so. Thousands of naturally mumified bodies have been discovered there. The oldest looks like he was only buried a few months earlier, as evident in a recent National Geographical special feature. His age, however, has been determined as 2300 years.
Buddha's birthplace at Lumbini in Nepal near the Indian border then was a lush and rich region. Today it is dusty and virtually treeless. Archeologists have found much evidence showing that the Gobi desert was, like the Sahara, green and widely inhabited by people practicing agriculture. It is this desert that is moving towards Beijing.
Today the Middle East stretching from Egypt through Pakistan is suffering from the worst drought in a century. Islamic imams again and again chant special prayers for rain throughout the region. While much Middle Eastern agriculture depends on irrigation there are other areas where enough rain used to fall to bring forth crops. However in Israel, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan the rains have not come for four years.
So serious are the water shortages that many Afghan refugees are returning to Afghanistan despite the terrible conditions prevailing there. According to a UN official, nearly 75 thousand Afghans have returned home from Iran and almost 54-thousand from Pakistan.
The refugees in Iran are mostly Shi'a and side with the anti-Taliban opposition. Those in Pakistan know if they return their women will not be able to work and bring in income. Nevertheless Afghanistan, being high, still has many mountain springs. But the Sindh region of Pakistan where most of the Afghan refugees live ----- 3 million alone among Karachi's 14 million population ----- is on the edges of the great Sindh desert that links the Iranian and Baluchistan deserts with desiccated Rajasthan.
A workshop based in Cairo called "Water Management in Africa and the Middle East" has compiled data that show annual renewable freshwater available per person in the Middle East has declined by half since 1950, and continues to decline. As a result the nations in the region, notably Egypt, Israel and Jordan, are more and more turning to treated and recycled sewage water.
Recycled sewage water is now widely used in Middle Eastern agriculture, a practice that has led to demands in Europe that the European Union prohibit agro-imports from the region. Yet the use of human waste as crop fertilizer was a common practice in much of the Eastern Hemisphere until recently. In fact until the late 1960's most of Tokyo's human waste was still recycled into fertilizer. Now Japanese lead the world in longevity even though in many villages farmers still make use of human waste for fertilizer.
The Middle East could well provide the world with a credible vision of our future as we head towards the fourth millennium. During the last five millennia more and more people been moving into cities. And more and more villages where food is grown have moved closer and closer to urban sites. One gets a sense of this when wandering around among the Pyramids. Go a bit farther to the west and you lose sight of the Pyramids and any human habitation. The guides say at this point that the desert continues right to the Atlantic Ocean, a thousand miles away.
Like it or not we are all going to be living at closer and closer quarters. The closer agriculture gets to the cities the easier it is to resolve water shortages, even if it means recycling. Out there, everywhere, there will be more desert and less green. Already half the world lives in cities. By the time Beijing decides to move elsewhere two thirds may live in cities.
The big challenge the world will face in the years to come will not be political or environmental but social. How can so many people live pressed into closer quarters with each other while maintaining a decent quality of life for all?
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