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The earth itself is an oasis: An island of life in a vast and, as far as is known, mostly sterile solar system. Most envision the oasis as the classic, palmfilled area of land, an island in the desert. This is the type of oasis that will be described here, along with the unique environmental and social challenges faced by these fragile pockets of water and life.
What makes an oasis is not necessarily that it has life and a consistent source of water, but the fact that it is surrounded by a dry or largely lifeless expanse. Thus, what makes the oasis an oasis is not necessarily what grows within it but the desert surrounding it. An oasis must be disconnected from other regions with water to be considered a true oasis: A region of concentrated life and water standing alone. Like the earth, the oasis is dependent on water for its survival.
Most oases are small and uninhabitable watering holes where Bedouin or yearly migrants bring their livestock. Larger oases that have enough water to support life are rarer. These large oases have been exploited by social groups who use the desert as a shield and flee from central authority. Many simply wish to take advantage of the natural resources available in the oasis. Yet with such a small, contained ecosystem these societies face many environmental challenges; often the costs of isolation outweigh the benefits. While some oases are sustained by human ingenuity, many other oases and their water supplies are exploited beyond their capacity by human inhabitants, leading to the destruction of oasis habitants. Thus, in many ways, oases provide environmentalists, sociologists, and anthropologists an isolated microcosm of humanity’s struggles with environmental scarcity.
Most oases are formed when land is low enough, or the ground porous enough, to allow a spring or pool to form from the aquifer: A region below the ground where water from far away, or from long ago, had reached the bedrock. The spring either naturally supports flora and fauna, or the water is exploited by humans; it is sent into channels and used for the irrigation of crops. Thus, by exploiting water humans can vastly expand the natural limits of an oasis, at least in the short to medium term.
There are three major, long-term human activities in oases, however, that can lead to the destabilization of oasis habitat and desertification, the advance of the desert into the oasis. These three activities are deforestation, overcultivation, and overgrazing. Deforestation, driven by a need for fuel and energy from wood, leads to erosion on the edge of the oasis. Overcultivation, the growing of food crops and cereals, also leads to the cutting of trees and the clearing of land. Often the land is rotated and allowed to lay fallow, but overpopulation can lead to overexploitation of the land. Without any cover, fertile soil can be blown away by the wind. Overgrazing by livestock, not only within the oasis community, but also by the large livestock brought into oases by migrating tribes, leads to the creation of permanent pasture out of once lush and fertile land. This also leads to conflict between settled agricultural and migratory tribes, a conflict that has come to a head today with the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. The Janjaweed, who have recently been driving villagers off oases are, for the most part, from migratory tribes. Indeed, as the current crisis of oasis communities in the Sudan suggests, it is in the best interests of the human population in general to come to an agreement over the sustainable use of the largest known oasis: the planet Earth.
- Madawi al-Rasheed, Politics in an Arabian Oasis (IB Tauris, 1991);
- Beadnell, An Egyptian Oasis (John Murray, 1909);
- Leif Manger, The Sand Swallows Our Land (University of Bergen, 1981);
- Nelson, ed., The Desert and the Sown (University of California at Berkeley, 1973).