The 4th Interdisciplinary Oxford Desert Conference took place from 8-9 June 2017 at the School for Geography and the Environment. Approximately 75 individuals participated in the conference, traveling from Japan, Kazakhstan, China, Oman, the USA, India, Europe and across the UK. The panels ranged in topics from pastoralism in Asia, Africa and the Middle East to water management systems to desertification science and climate change adaptation. The conference programme is available here: Final Desert Programme.
The conference aimed to be an interdisciplinary event to allow for social scientists, physical scientists and humanities scholars to exchange research findings, learn new methods and build collaborations. The opening panel on Desert Themes this year included talks from Dawn Chatty, Emerita Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration at the Refugee Studies Centre, Daniel Morchain, a global advisor from Oxfam, and Richard Walker, a Professor of Tectonics at the Oxford Earth Sciences department. They discussed the ongoing importance of water, migration, changing environments and demographics and macro-economic issues such as mining. Richard Walker’s talk illustrated how water sources are usually found along fault lines in desert environments, which are also the same places where humans settle. He used the example of Tehran, which continues to expand and put major pressure on water sources. The city is built on a major fault line. Tehran has been destroyed by earthquakes a number of times in its history and will most likely experience another major earthquake in the future. He asked, how can city planners better prepare these urban areas for a major earthquake event? This situation is true for many desert cities.
Other talks included topics on the nature of FDI in the Gulf countries by Emiliya Lazarova of UAE, the relationship between variability in arid environments and pastoralist production systems by Saverio Kratli, the development of Bedouin identity in Jordan during the colonial era by Frederick Wojnarowski and a talk by Jed Stevenson on socio-ecological change in the Turkana Basin. These presentations provided valuable data on the social, historical, environmental and institutional conditions which characterize arid environments today. What we can observe from the work of desert scholars are trends including:
-population increase in arid regions,
-land tenure conflicts between local populations and projects which claim large swaths of land such as conservation or mining projects;
-new forms of urbanization and mobility between rural and urban spaces
-new data which shows the large extent of tree cover in deserts (see Alan Grainger et al at University of Leeds)
-the diversification of work and livelihoods strategies used by local populations;
-the potential for the development of new institutions to better manage resource scarcity and to promote participation in decision making by local populations.
We are hoping for many positive collaborations to come out of the desert conference which will create more robust understandings of contemporary global challenges in these regions.