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Humans and the Desert

Hot deserts provide opportunities for economic development. As part of your GCSE Geography syllabus, you will have studied how humans use these hostile environments. The way that they are used depends on whether the country is rich or poor. You should be able to compare and contrast the different ways in which deserts are used in these two cases.

In richer countries, deserts are used for commercial farming, mineral extraction, retirement migration, leisure and tourism. These all require the country to have a well established infrastructure, good communications and plenty of capital. One of the usual case studies is that of Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert in the USA.

The Mojave Desert lies in the American far west and has a fragile ecosystem and limited resources. Despite this, one of America's fastest-growing cities has arisen - Las Vegas.

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The Colorado River passes through this desert and was dammed to create Lake Mead in the 1930s. This was crucial to the development of Las Vegas and the lake supplies both water and electricity to the city. The lake and its surroundings are used for tourism - sailing, kayaking, canoeing, hiking and sightseeing are a few examples. Since 2000, the area has seen lower than normal rainfall and the levels of water in Lake Mead have been falling. Las Vegas city officials have asked the inhabitants to recycle as much waste water as possible in the interests of water conservation.

Other areas of the desert are used by the military, rock climbers, film makers and off-road drivers on quad bikes, trail bikes, 4x4 vehicles etc. Fibre optic cables connecting urban centres have been routed through it and there is even a spaceport! These uses all put pressure on the fragile desert ecosystems.

The story is very different in LEDCs. Here, the deserts are used by local people for subsistence farming with some commercial farming, mining and tourism. Desert soils are poor and farming tends to be limited to raising a few animals on any areas where grass exists and moving around to find new pastures and water sources as the old ones are 'grazed out' and dry up. This is known as nomadic pastoralism and is practised by hunter-gatherer tribes.

Around the edges of deserts and around oases, it is possible to grow a few crops and perhaps some fruit trees. Where good irrigation is available, cash crops can be grown, for example cotton and wheat in the Thar Desert (India and Pakistan) alongside the Indira Ghandi Canal. In the same desert, deposits of limestone, marble, lignite coal, oil and gypsum are mined. Tourism is often on a small scale with locals acting as guides.

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  1. Salinisation is a problem with agricultural land in deserts. What is salinisation?
    As the levels of salts and minerals increase, the land becomes toxic to plants and is unusable. It is often caused by irrigation
  2. Which of the following is the most likely to be a reason that deserts in a LEDC do not have cities like Las Vegas?
    Water is probably the most crucial factor to human use of a desert, MEDCs have more money available to invest in developing the infrastructure that enables large numbers of people to live and work in a hot desert
  3. Egypt is a country that is mainly desert and farmers relied on the annual flooding of the river Nile. When the Nile was dammed in 1970, downstream from the dam, flooding stopped so the farmers:
    The flooding provided silt from the river which fertilised the farmland
  4. Some people like to drive their quad bikes, trail bikes and four wheel drive vehicles off-road in deserts. Which of the following problems does this cause?
    Plants find it very difficult to take root in the poor desert soils. When the wheels of an off-road vehicle churn up the soil, it can take many decades for the plants to become re-established. Without the plants, the insects and other animals find it more difficult to live there
  5. City officials of Las Vegas have asked people to recycle as much waste water as possible. Why?
    Less water is flowing down the rivers that supply Lake Mead, the reservoir that supplies Las Vegas with water. Other water conservation measures include installing water-efficient devices and replacing garden plants with ones that need less watering
  6. Farming takes place in many hot deserts. Desert soil is:
    Farming is only possible near sources of water. Away from water sources, only nomadic pastoralism is possible
  7. The Mojave Desert in the US is used by which of the following groups of people.
    Tourists often visit Las Vegas and Lake Mead whilst film makers use the amazing locations throughout the desert for filming scenes for their movies
  8. Which of the following statements about humans and the desert is not true.
    Where money is available to establish water supplies, cities can be built in deserts, irrigation can lead to salinisation of soils and there are solar energy plants in several deserts, notably the Mojave and Sahara. These turn water into steam that drives turbines and generators, producing electricity
  9. What are the challenges to humans living in a desert?
    There are many other challenges to living in the deserts too such as communication, finding materials to construct shelters and keeping domestic animals alive
  10. In the deserts of LEDCs, tribes of nomadic pastoralists are found. These tribes are:
    They keep sheep, goats and camels which can survive on little water. They have to keep moving to constantly find new patches of vegetation and water sources

Author: Kev Woodward

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