Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC

Deserts

Human life in the desert is ruled by the relentless quest for water. For the Hamar women of Ethiopia, the quest may mean walking a few miles to the nearest well. But for the Tubu and Tuareg, satisfying their thirst may require travelling great distances. When water is found, it is always a cause for celebration as demonstrated by the Wodaabe people of Niger.


Photo from Human Planet
Children rejoice by playing in the water and dancing as long-awaited rain falls in the desert in Dogon country, Mali.

Introduction

Human Planet
Copyright Timothy Allen / BBC Deserts

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About Deserts

Considering a desert is defined by an almost complete lack of rainfall, it might seem surprising that around 300 million people live in deserts around the world. But then deserts do cover around a third of the Earth’s surface and they aren’t all just sand and blazing sunshine.

While temperatures can soar to 58C in some of the hottest deserts, there are some deserts that are positively freezing. In Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, winter temperatures can fall to a mind-numbing –40C. And yet, despite these contrasting temperatures, there is one challenge that is common to all desert-dwellers: finding water. Humans can live for weeks without food but only a few days without water, so the lives of desert denizens tend to be dominated by the quest for this most precious of resources.

Women of the Tubu tribe, for example, must steer their camel caravans and trek for days across the endless sands of the Sahara just to buy salt and dates at market. The Sahara is an area the size of the United States and the biggest desert on the planet. On the way, they must quench their thirst at an assortment of small wells. Miss them and they die.

In South America’s Atacama Desert, local people gather water by mimicking nature, stringing up nets to catch dew for their reservoirs.

But it’s not just humans who need water, so do their livestock. Cattle, for example, are an important asset and food supply for many African desert-dwellers, and for the Hamar of Ethiopia they form a key part of a coming-of-age ritual in which boys become men by running over the backs of their cattle.

Further west, Niger’s nomadic Wodaabe people spend months in small family units, searching out pastures for their cattle. But wandering the desert with your family and friends is hardly conducive to finding a partner. So when there has been enough rain the Wodaabe don’t hang about. Every year they celebrate the rains by holding a beauty contest called Gerewol, where the men get the chance to impress the women.

At the other end of the scale are those people who have managed to build whole cities in the sand. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Reno are all oases in desert landscapes. But they are nothing compared to Las Vegas, a city which makes a mockery of desert living. Not only is it one of the fastest growing cities in the US, it also uses more water per person that almost any other city in the world.

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