Drawing-up a map is the indispensable starting point for any research activity aimed towards promoting environmental policy actions. In order to ensure the effectiveness of such interventions, it is necessary to equip ourselves with a tool capable of highlighting the progressive soil deterioration occurring all over the world, as a consequence of urban and industrial development, global warming and non-sustainable agricultural activities.
For this purpose, with the Atlas of Saharan and Arabian Oases Project the LabOasis Foundation identifies 775 Oases – geo-referencing them on an interactive map which spans over the borders of 11 national states – and makes it available online. For the first time we are able to view in its entirety the constellation of Oases which has for centuries performed the task of mitigating the climate, a green defence-line crossing two deserts, a stronghold of civilisation in places where survival would appear impossible. Collected by Gismap, the data referring to geographic information has been elaborated using GIS, Remote Sensing and DBMS Open Source, in collaboration with experts from scientific bodies of different countries, especially Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Tunisia. Applying our selection criteria, we located the many different settlements. We are thus able to observe changes in size occurring in the Oases, to detect silting up processes now mostly due to the decrease of water resources and to witness – however indirectly – the attachment of local communities to places made progressively inhospitable by global warming, a distinctive trait of many such communities, who clearly buck the trend of emigration as a forced choice.
The current version of the Atlas of Saharan and Arabian Oases, which shall be further developed in order to attain progressively more exhaustive classifications, is intended to provide a starting point for comparative studies of social-environmental changes in that vast area of the world characterised by extreme aridity. Studies which are necessary to elaborate those pilot interventions, which are able to implement appropriate prevention and mitigation measures, extendable to other Oases where people are facing similar emergencies. In order to document and assess the studies and the various “on the ground” projects carried out in the last 30 years – in different sectors, but all equally vital for the economy of such communities – LabOasis Foundation has also launched the Oases Database Project, linking it to the Atlas of Saharan and Arabian Oases: for each Oasis located on the map, users can access information about past, or on-going, projects and acquire details about the actors and local associations engaged in such activities.
When consulting the Database sheet, available when the Oasis – via Google Maps – is located on the Atlas map, it can be noted that many actions fostered by institutional agents, research centres and international associations, have converged in the same areas: the most accessible and famous Oases. The interactive exploration, conducted via the Atlas of Saharan and Arabian Oases, enables a deeper understanding of the local context, and the discovery of smaller and lesser-known Oases – a first step towards the formulation of intervention strategies applicable also to areas considered, until recently, to be marginal. Such areas are, in fact, home to several Oases, sitting on the edge of porous national borders drawn across the desert. These are settlements inhabited by ancient communities preserving unique hospitality traditions, indigenous culture and extraordinary historic landscapes, which not only act as a stronghold against climate change but also offer a precious contribution to the safety of the Mediterranean region, counteracting the dominance of criminal organisations in those vast uninhabited areas.
Many are, therefore, the research projects and subsequent safeguard actions we hope will be carried out on the basis of the new evidence provided by the Atlas of Saharan and Arabian Oases and the Database, notwithstanding LabOasis Foundation’s intention to contribute to their update in collaboration with experts and scholars from all around the world and, most importantly, with the ever-more needed participation of the Oases’ inhabitants.
OASES ATLAS SELECTION CRITERIA
Our selection criteria, that is, what we mean when we talk about Oases: they consist of traditional Oases, ecosystems developed by mankind in an arid environment as early as 3,000 BC. Places where ingenious water-capture systems made it possible to cultivate date palm trees. Oases whose original architectural heritage – today severely endangered and close to disappearing – consists of buildings made either of raw earth or stone. Thousand-year, or hundred-year old Oases, of varying size, founded at the latest at the beginning of the XX Century, where indigenous knowledge and practices are handed down from generation to generation. In some instances we find vast areas with thousands of inhabitants scattered over various villages, in others the population is limited to 30 people, the minimum number adopted by LabOasis Foundation as its survey criteria. The production cycle includes agriculture and pastoralism, the underlying activities for the integrated economy which is typical of the Oasis, where, in any event, palm cultivation is the mainstay.
OPERATIONAL DEFINITION OF A TRADITIONAL OASIS
Anthropic ecosystem found in a desert or semi-desert environment, that present similar structural features throughout the geographical area which includes the Saharan and Arabian deserts, such as:
- Presence of a human settlement and a palm grove;
- Economic and cultural centrality of the date palm tree;
- Climatic conditions allowing for the agriculture on three levels, typical of the Oases;
- Cultivation practices which make at least partial use of traditional irrigation systems;
- Presence of a traditional village or at least its vestiges, with buildings in raw earth or stone;
- Stable population consisting of at least 30 inhabitants;
- Settlements dating back 100 years or more;
The selection criteria refer to one single Oasis. In some cases, when multiple Oases located over an extensive area share the geomorphology of the land, as well as the traditional agriculture on three levels, and thus adopt similar water catchment systems, they are considered as parts of a whole. A few mountain Oases, which belong to such greater wholes, have been recorded, even in the absence of a palm grove.