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Humans and the Desert
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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.

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?
Adding mineral salts to the desert soil to increase fertility
An increase in the levels of salts and minerals on the surface of the soil owing to evaporation of water
The removal of salt from desert soils
Using salty water to make drinking water
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 statements about humans and the desert is not true.
The way of life led by hunter-gatherer tribes is regarded as being sustainable
There are no cities built in deserts
Irrigation of crops can ultimately create soils that are toxic to plants
Areas of hot deserts are used for generating electricity
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
3.
Which of the following is the most likely to be a reason that deserts in a LEDC do not have cities like Las Vegas?
There is a lack of resources and money to find and use water sources
There are fewer people in LEDCs
Farmers in LEDCs can't afford fertilisers
All of the above
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
4.
What are the challenges to humans living in a desert?
Extreme temperatures only
Low rainfall and low fertility soils only
Low fertility soils combined with the extremes of temperatures
Low fertility soil, lack of water and large daily range of temperatures
There are many other challenges to living in the deserts too such as communication, finding materials to construct shelters and keeping domestic animals alive
5.
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:
have had to find other work
needed to buy more fertilisers for their land
needed to buy water off the government as they own the dam
have not been affected in any way
The flooding provided silt from the river which fertilised the farmland
6.
City officials of Las Vegas have asked people to recycle as much waste water as possible. Why?
To save money
To save on electricity
When put on plants, waste water acts as a fertiliser
Since 2000, there has been less rainfall than normal
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
7.
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?
Noise frightens away the birds
The soils are disturbed, damaging the ecosystem of the desert
They run over all of the desert animals because the animals don't know that they need to get out of the way
It creates severe air pollution, killing plants and animals
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
8.
The Mojave Desert in the US is used by which of the following groups of people.
Tourists and the military
Film makers
All of the above
Nobody ever goes there
Tourists often visit Las Vegas and Lake Mead whilst film makers use the amazing locations throughout the desert for filming scenes for their movies
9.
In the deserts of LEDCs, tribes of nomadic pastoralists are found. These tribes are:
people who keep moving with their animals
people who settle in one place and grow crops in the desert
people who grow crops then move to another area to sell the crops
people who travel around a country looking for work on farms
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
10.
Farming takes place in many hot deserts. Desert soil is:
made only from sand
low in nutrients so allowing many different types of farming
low in nutrients which makes farming very difficult
highly fertile, allowing a wide variety of farming
Farming is only possible near sources of water. Away from water sources, only nomadic pastoralism is possible
Author:  Kev Woodward

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