The Marching Deserts—Will They Really Blossom as the Rose?
SAND! Sand! Sand! As far as the eye can see, nothing but burning, drifting sand. In the distance giant pyramidic dunes, 700 feet (210 m) high and six times as wide at the base, reach upward to meet the cloudless sky. Constant winds carve serpentine ripples in the sand. The sun is intense. Even snakes and frogs must take refuge from it under the surface of the sand. The reflection from the sand is blinding. The shimmering heat plays tricks on the eyes—mirages of pools of water where there are none; objects in the distance that appear as one thing but in reality are something different.
Then the winds blow in gale force, churning up the sand in such great clouds that they can turn daylight into darkness. They can penetrate clothing and sting the skin like needle points. They can strip the paint from automobiles and reduce windshields to frosted glass. They can carve desert stones into fantastic shapes and bury telephone poles up to half their height.
At midday the temperature may be a scorching 125 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (52° to 54° C.), at which time visitors swelter. At night the mercury may plummet to a bone-chilling 40 degrees (4° C.) or less, at which time they may freeze. If dressed in layers of wool clothing, they will stay cooler; scantily clad they will scorch. If seated one foot above the ground, they may be 30 degrees (17° C.) cooler than if they sit on the ground itself. Add to this the parched throats, the quest for water, the fear of snakes, the sting of scorpions, the perils of flash floods, the dangers of getting lost—it all makes this silent, arid world of desert sand foreboding.
No one seems to know for sure how many deserts, large or small, there are in the world, for an obvious reason—no one seems to have counted them. “I have found more than 125,” said one noted desert explorer. “Perhaps there are twice that many.” There are, however, deserts on every continent of the earth. They occupy nearly a fifth of the earth’s land surface.
The largest desert of all, the Sahara in North Africa, contains half the desert surface of the world—three and a half million square miles of it.a The Arabian Desert on the Arabian Peninsula and the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa embrace a land area of 500,000 and 200,000 square miles respectively. The Australian Desert, second in size to the Sahara, boasts an area of 1.3 million square miles—nearly half of the continent. The Gobi Desert in China, about twice the size of the state of Texas in the United States, covers 500,000 square miles.
North America has its deserts—25 percent of the state of California is desert. Deserts in Arizona, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, and Mexico are just as dry and just as hot. California’s Death Valley is reported to be the second hottest desert in the world. South America is noted for having the driest desert on earth—the Atacama—extending 600 miles (970 km) south from the border of Peru into the northern part of Chile. All deserts, all sharing the same peculiarity—hot and arid.
For example, there are places in the Atacama Desert in Chile where rain is so scarce it prompted one resident of the area to lament, “Every few years we get a mist—but the drops are very small.” In other places in the same desert, official reports show no rain or snow during a 14-year period. In other places in the Atacama, unofficial reports show no rain for 50 years, and in even drier areas, rain has never been recorded. In the Namib Desert in South-West Africa, the annual rainfall varies from less than an eighth of an inch to six inches (0.3 cm to 15 cm). In areas in the Sahara, in one two-year period the rainfall was zero. The rainfall can be erratic. “Once in the Gobi Desert,” said one veteran desert explorer, “sheep were dying for lack of water. The next day a cloudburst drowned animals and people.”
Deserts on the March
Today, endless columns of newsprint are being devoted to the world’s concern about earth’s deserts. Why, after millenniums of existence, are the deserts receiving such notoriety now? Our greatest lakes and streams are polluted by man. Their fish are loaded with poisonous chemicals irresponsibly dumped in rivers by man. Even the sky above is the scene of orbiting “junk” rocketed there by man. But the deserts, albeit man has conquered certain portions of them, still retain much of their physical character and the plant and animal life that they have known for thousands of years.
Almost weekly, however, the headlines are telling the story—“Spread of Deserts Seen as a Catastrophe Underlying Famine,” reports The New York Times. “Disastrous drought across Africa turns Sahel into another Sahara,” headlines The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. “Deserts continue to spread,” The Boston Globe. “World’s arable land deteriorating,” The Toronto Star. “In One Year, Sahara Engulfs Much of Chad,” heralds another. Reams are being written on the threat of spreading deserts.
Now read below the headlines. “The Sahara has been extending its desert barrenness southward at the rate of 6 to 12 miles [10 to 20 km] a year for more than a decade, gradually incorporating the Sahel, the semiarid belt at its southern fringe,” says The New York Times of January 2, 1985.
“About 52 million acres [21 million ha] of land become desert every year . . . The problem occurs primarily in Africa, India and South America,” reports The Boston Globe of June 11, 1984.
“The expansion of the desert is threatening the very existence of some countries, including Mauritania, where government officials say the Sahara Desert is moving south at a rate of four miles [6 km] a year. Mauritanians talk about the days when lions lived in the wooded areas of the country, the same areas that today are no more than a barren landscape of dead trees and blowing sand,” relates The Atlanta Journal and Constitution of January 20, 1985.
This global phenomenon of expanding deserts is not new. However, a new word has been coined to describe this insidious process—“desertification.” It is rapidly becoming a household word in some parts of the world. Desertification currently affects about a hundred countries, particularly in the underdeveloped nations in Africa that are literally surrounded by deserts.
It is a problem to which the United Nations organization is seeking a solution. “We have to look at this as a colossal problem,” said Gaafar Karrar, chief of the desertification branch of UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program). “We could lose one-third of the world’s existing arable area by the end of the century,” he said. According to a UN report, desertification threatens 35 percent of the earth’s land surface, or about 45 million square miles, and 20 percent of its population—about 850 million people. “There isn’t actually anywhere in the world that is immune from desertification,” Karrar said.
In 1977, 94 nations met in Nairobi, Kenya, and agreed on a “plan of action” to arrest the spread of deserts by the turn of the century. But because of general indifference on the part of the nations and lack of financing, the plan was abandoned as no longer being feasible. In 1980 UNEP estimated that it would cost about 90 billion dollars (U.S.) over 20 years, or about 4.5 billion dollars per year, to stop the spread of deserts by the year 2000. How serious do the experts consider this marching world of sand to be? “If the present march of desertification continues,” said a representative of UNEP, “by the year 2000 the situation will have become a global catastrophe.”
When one considers the very nature of desertification, some interesting questions are posed: What plan of action could be instituted by the UN that could effectively stem this seemingly inexorable expansion of the deserts? Can the UN harness the thinking of man and bring it totally in line with that of farsighted, well-intentioned men who see the global catastrophe that continued desertification will bring? The word “desertification,” says one writer, is a “term that translates into the expansion of deserts as a result of human activity.” Underscoring the root cause of desertification, Dr. Mostafa K. Tolba, executive director of UNEP, said: “The main cause is not drought as many still believe but human overexploitation of lands through overcultivation, overgrazing, poor irrigation practices and deforestation.”
Such overexploitation is accelerated as the population increases and new lands are settled that cannot carry the population growth. In order to till the land to feed the increasing populace, to build the houses, and to use the wood for fuel, every tree in sight is cut down. “Now there is a wood and charcoal shortage too,” said the director for the Protection of Nature in Mauritania, Africa. “Still the people cut and cut. They think Allah will provide the rain, the trees.” Their cattle, in order to survive, eat every blade of vegetation as far as they can graze. The result is that the exposed land is baked stone hard by the relentless sun, killing off microorganisms needed for plant growth. As the vegetation decreases, desert increases.
Next comes the blowing wind. The sand from the surrounding arid lands is swept by the winds and blown across the exposed earth, and with nothing to check its drift, it engulfs the land, piling up in the streets and blowing into homes, forcing the people out and into new territories in a seemingly never-ending cycle.
Where there was once ample rainfall, the newly exposed land reflects the sun’s heat, altering the thermal dynamics of the atmosphere in ways, experts say, that suppress rainfall, accelerating the growth of desertlike conditions, gaining in momentum as it goes. People dig into the dry earth to plant their seed, but, alas, nothing will grow. Famine stalks the land. When will it end?
Will the Deserts Really Blossom as the Rose?
Over two millenniums ago, the prophet Isaiah was inspired to write regarding the future of the deserts of this earth and their miraculous transformation—not by some “plan of action” by the United Nations but only under the Kingdom rule of Christ Jesus. And here in this grand prophecy, so close now to being fulfilled, are words, not of despair, but of hope. “Even the wilderness and desert will rejoice in those days; the desert will blossom with flowers. Yes, there will be an abundance of flowers and singing and joy! The deserts will become as green as the Lebanon mountains, as lovely as Mount Carmel’s pastures and Sharon’s meadows; for the Lord will display his glory there, the excellency of our God . . . Springs will burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert. The parched ground will become a pool, with springs of water in the thirsty land. Where desert jackals lived, there will be reeds and rushes!”—Isaiah 35:1-6, The Living Bible.
This is the inspired promised future of earth’s deserts of drifting, burning sand.
a One sq mi = 2.6 sq km.
[Blurb on page 10]
“Every few years we get a mist—but the drops are very small”
[Map on page 11]
(For fully formatted text, see publication.)
Desert areas of the world shown in white