Atlas
Saharan and
Arabian Oases

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 1038 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 DATABASE
The Oases Database originates from a specific need: we want to make a tangible contribution to the safeguard of those extraordinary places called Oases, in the Saharan and Arabian deserts. Our aim is to carry out new projects and for this reason we think that knowing what has already been done is very important: how, when and by who. Thus, the Oases Database is the result of complex research and cataloguing work, an hypertext database now available on our website. Within this archive different kinds of info can be found, sometimes dating back early as 30 years ago: on the ground actions carried out by international development cooperation, and the scientific output that the academic community has dedicated to Saharan and Arabian Oases, following observations and fact-finding practices. The Oases Database can be searched either by category, or by keywords and is directly linked to the Map drawn-up within the Project Atlas of Saharan and Arabian Oases, also attainable on our website, offering for each Oasis – by means of a chart – all the related files.

 

It has to be said that, in the first phase of our web search, a prominent contribution came from the studies that have codified the knowledge of the Oases’ civilization: “on field” research carried out by Pietro Laureano, architect, urban planner, UNESCO’s main consultant for arid areas. Then, we began by looking both the big million-dollar projects (such as those funded by the World Bank via the GEF) and the effectiveness of actions promoted by skilful European associations such as Terrachidia and, in the area of philanthropic funding, Bambini nel deserto and Enfants du désert. During our survey we also virtually met, under the shade of the Oases’ palm trees, a crowd of university professors from Belgium, England, France, Germany, Italy, the US and Spain, together with their students, each establishing different workshops. Agronomists, anthropologists, archaeologists, architects, engineers: in the Oases Database a full record of their work is stored, be it a degree thesis, or a paper published on an academic journal, everything we could find so far in the capacious university libraries online. In the same way we have documented the expertise of their colleagues in the Universities of Maghreb and Oman and the preparatory studies for on the ground interventions carried out by the Agronomic Institutes of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. We also note that, more than half a century ago, Desert Research Centre had already been established in Cairo – still a driving force for specific research activities – and that Morocco recently created a new special body, Andzoa, after having long launched national programmes of great interest for the safeguard of Moroccan Oases. We also have observed that Oman (also though advisors such as Archiam) has launched an effective campaign for the revitalization of their architectural heritage, as well as their ancient Oases’ irrigation systems, the Aflaj, already classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the Oases Database we include international Foundations – The Ghetty Conservation Institute, Agha Khan Trust For Culture, Intbau – which can boast their support of important restoration projects for historic buildings in Moroccan Oases, and we include experiences – such as the Khalifa Date Palm Award one – aimed at stimulating the recovery of the agricultural production in many Oases. We also list, thanks to the extraordinary networking effort of Raddo together with Cari, the countless Associations working within local communities, those agents who carry out actions coordinated by NGO such as Tenmiya, in Mauritania and Cospe in Egypt, where SlowFood also has established one its Presidiums, in Siwa Oasis. We verified that the Ministère de l’Environnement et du Développement Durable in Tunis has finalised a monography on the Country’s Oases a useful standard for comparative studies; we can emphasise the importance of the GIAHS programme, initiated by FAO in 2002, which has contributed greatly to enhance the systems and traditional practices which gave birth to the historic landscape of North-African Oases. Last, but not least, with the Oases Database we also aim to create the opportunity for an historical/chronological analysis of those financial flows which, in the last 30 years, have funded a wide range of development cooperation activities in Saharan and Arabian Oases. LabOasis Foundation wishes to offer it, therefore, as a working tool for scholars and international experts with the purpose that, through their collaboration, it may continue to acquire new content and record new projects, all aimed at protecting the places where the thousand-year old alliance between man and nature is rooted: the Oases.
The Oasis Effect

The Oasis Effect is a communication project aimed at spreading information and sharing knowledge. In the desert, even one single date palm tree, if assisted by the hand of men, can set off the Oasis Effect: that virtuous circle which triggers favourable conditions for human life. In the same way, LabOasis Foundation wants to incite a peculiar Oasis Effect: to germinate new awareness and promote the knowledge about traditional Saharan and Arabian Oases and their inhabitants. In order to make it clear about how everything began, and how everything could come to an end.

The background is that of a public opinion mainly sharing a false and fairy-tale-like image of the Oasis, seen as some kind of natural miracle in the middle of desert. It often happens that even within the National communities of the 11 Countries comprised in the Atlas of Saharan and Arabian Oases, the newer generations – bred in urban settings – ignore the origin and the true nature of Oases. As a result, the historical, cultural and environmental value of these settlements is today widely and diffusely unrecognised.

The goal, once clarified that the Oasis is not a natural phenomenon, is to demonstrate that the Oases – the artificial sites created by Neolithic men in Saharan and Arabian deserts ever since 3000 BC – are the place where the best “system” to inhabit the earth is paradigmatically summarised. The most respectful – by tradition – of the natural cycle’s rules, under which everything constantly changes and regenerates itself. Moreover, we wish to highlight the extraordinary experience of these communities – comparable in many ways, albeit distant from one another and living in different Countries – who, still today, are capable of inhabiting massively inhospitable territories.

The action of communication employs three different modalities that use multimedia.

INFORMATION

Why the Oasis brings to light a very ancient story, which Pietro Laureano recalled better than anyone else in his writings, following his fieldwork. This is the story of the Oasis, beginning from the origins, in prehistoric times, and stretching until the present time, that crosses Saharan and Arabian deserts, venturing in those villages where those peoples remain anchored to the very earth they made fertile, by way of knowledge and tenacity. A story that investigates their relationship with the desert environment and the water resource, shaped by knowledge accumulated over the centuries; that shows the typical cultivation and construction methods common in these places; that highlights the cultural and economic role played in those communities by nomadic herders and merchants, who travelled along caravan routes, not by chance, dotted with Oases.

Oases in danger describes recent social and environmental changes, partly due to global warming. As a matter of fact, ever since traditional techniques were left behind without preserving their guiding principle, in favour of innovative techniques, the use of dykes and motor pumps – together with the spread of intensive farming and technologies totally unsuitable to the specific environmental context – has been endangering the delicate balance at the very heart of these ecosystems. Soil’s salinization and its progressive sterility, the exhaustion and pollution of both groundwater and surface water, are only just some of the consequences. This is compounded by a loss of the scenic and environmental quality of landscape, a significant part of peoples‘ cultural heritage and identity, also due to the abandonment of traditional villages, the creation of new neighbourhoods and emigration.

IMAGES

It’s about pictures acquired with the generous involvement of 28 photographers from all over the world. We mention here a name, the one of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, to represent the passion and the skill for documenting realty, of every one of them. More than ninety images, each accompanied by an exhaustive caption and the geographical location which, using Google Maps, allows the visualisation of the specific place where the picture was shot. An accurate search and selection was carried out favouring content relevance to the texts published on LabOasis Foundation’s website, but never at the expense of artistic quality, which is the result of talent in seizing the moment, to effectively tell a story.

Truth and powerfulness, which belong to the photographic medium, add complexity and significance to the texts, making far-away places closer. Images in which the echo of an archaic legacy refers to the origins of mankind; images of the Oasis-haven, as seen in the aerial shots, because deserts’ nature, all around, is as miserly and hostile as it was in the ancient times; images that hand back the primitive splendour of traditional architectures, with shapes transforming the humble material, the raw earth; images that capture moments of daily life and gestures sometimes similar to the ones used in a distant past, agricultural practices that unveil the genesis of religious rituals, belonging to our civilisation.

We have thus obtained the substantial premise and met the noble fathers for the project in LabOasis Foundation’s pipeline: a photographic contest reserved for the youths from the 11 Nations comprised in the Atlas of Saharan and Arabian Oases. We believe it is important to emphasise the use of photography as a tool for an all-out commitment and to support those who will be able to use – creatively and critically – their gaze on Oases, in order to promote and preserve these historic sites.

NETWORKING

LabOasis Foundation assumes directly the responsibility of sharing news, in synergy with the wide network of associations working in the Oases, flanking the meritorious job started by Raddo association in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and carried on in the other Countries concerned. We not only want to contribute increasing the knowledge of Saharan and Arabian Oases for a wider audience, but also to help overcome technical and logistic problems – which prevent sharing research in this field – as well as potential solutions for Oases’ current issues. We highlight virtuous activities, seminars, forums, congresses and all those initiatives which are usually little known or inaccessible by the many and varied stakeholders which are “on the ground”: research centres, institutions, local associations.