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Are desert societies permanently at risk of collapse? Ways to include arid environments in the present social-ecological system model

Are desert societies permanently at risk of collapse? Ways to include arid environments in the present social-ecological system model

Noa Avriel-Avni
Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, Israel

The greatest challenges of living in arid and hyper-arid regions include the perpetually limited food resources and the inherent uncertainty regarding the availability, quantity and spatial distribution of water. These challenges dictate the main weaknesses of desert societies that, according to the existing paradigm, are prone to suffer from a permanent risk of collapse.

The Social-Ecological System (SES) model, which is widely accepted in the research of social-ecological systems' resilience, seems to support this view. According to this model, the ecological system provides ecosystem-services that are essential for the existence of the social system. The resilience of the SES depends on the ecological system's function, which may be affected either by the pressures applied by the social system, such as overgrazing, or by external drivers, such as climate change.

It is therefore reasonable to argue that reduced ecosystem-services, due to climatic fluctuations, will occasionally cause the social system in arid lands to collapse.

However, archaeological remains and anthropological findings from various arid lands worldwide indicate long-term continuity of social systems. Flexibility appears to be these societies' key to success.

In our paper, we will suggest ways to modify the SES model to suit nomadic and semi-nomadic societies in arid lands. We argue that the well-known SES model assumes that human society reside in one place - an assumption that supports the perception that arid societies are prone to a permanent risk of collapse. Understanding the resilience of nomadic societies in arid regions requires the formulation of three new assumptions as a modification of the existing paradigm:

1. Uncertainty regarding the availability of ecosystem-services permanently affects arid social-ecological systems.

2. Social systems of arid regions are flexible, both in terms of structure and function.

3. Social systems of arid regions are mobile and have flexible geographical boundaries; i.e., the local ecological system that supports the community is replaced as the nomads move to a new terrain.

Including these assumptions in the SES model allows an alternative interpretation of the discontinuity of arid societies (ancient or contemporary) at a particular site; i.e., the abandonment of a site does not necessarily hint that the society is near collapse.

In my talk, I will describe the Bedouin society in the Negev Desert and Sinai as an example of a thriving arid society, and invite listeners to discuss and compare examples from other arid SESs worldwide.

The extended abstract and supplementary material