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UNESCO Chair for desert studies and desertification control

The UNESCO Chair for Desert Studies and Desertification Control (the Chair) was established through support of the UNESCO in the end of 1995 as a center of excellence in desert studies. The idea of the Chair was to become a focus for interdisciplinary efforts aimed at understanding the process of climate change and desertification, and at the same time understand the potentials and limitations for various development scenarios in the Jordanian Badia in particular. This includes the study of the various natural resources present in the Badia region.

The Chair seeks to provide an umbrella under which geologists, biologists, archaeologists, social scientists and other interested parties can work on joint research and educational opportunities. As the activities of the Chair gain momentum, new avenues of cooperation are developing between interested faculty at Yarmouk University as well as between Yarmouk University and a number of national, regional and international parties. The purpose of this report is to highlight the achievements, current projects and future outlook of the Chair.

The Chair has grown to become a well respected institution both on the national and international scene since it's inception. This status has been earned through a large number of activities including concluding important cooperation agreements, two international conferences and a number of research projects.

The Chair works closely with the Badia Research and Development Programme which is affiliated with the Higher Council of Science and Technology (Jordan). A joint cooperation agreement by which the Chair has full access to the field station at Safawi is an important achievement by which field access is easy and inexpensive. The kind donation by HRH Prince Hassan of a field vehicle has provided workers with the Chair unrestricted access to the field, an important factor for all of our projects. The Chair has completed an important survey of the chemical and isotopic nature of the upper aquifer in the Badia region. This data was placed in the context of the recharge, age and movement of groundwater in the area. Another, ongoing project aims to determine the nature of climatic changes in the region using sedimentology and geochemistry of the sediments of the Qa's (playas) of the region. Another approach to this, namely the reconstruction of hydrological conditions in the region, will help to quantify climate change during the Quaternary.

A memorandum of understanding between the Chair and the Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Nevada (USA) allows for exchange of faculty, scholarships for Jordanian students and development of joint research projects. Since the signing of the MOU, DRI scientists have actively participated in the two conferences organized by the Chair and faculty for Yarmouk have attended a conference organized by DRI in the United States. Moreover, faculty from both sides are planning on spending sabbatical leaves at the counterpart institutions, and a number of Yarmouk students are planning to begin work on their doctoral degrees in the US. A joint research proposal involving the study of groundwater recharge in the Badia will be submitted to the International Arid Lands Consortium soon, and we are hopeful that this venture will also be successful.

The Chair has also signed an agreement with the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) and the Arab Center for the Study of Arid Lands (ACSAD) whereby the Chair and ACSAD conduct a joint research project on the chemical and isotopic nature of the groundwaters of the Badiat el Sham (including Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia). Work is ongoing on this project.

In the Summer of 1996, the Chair organized an international conference entitled "Past, present and future of the Middle East desert". Scientists from over 20 countries discussed environment, ecology, climate change, and water problems, among others. This conference helped to establish the presence of the Chair on the international scene, and helped to bring the state of the art in desert studies to Jordan as well as to forge important links between Jordanian and foreign scientists.

In May 1998, a second international conference entitled "Learning from the past: Global paleoclimatic changes" was organized. This conference attracted over 40 scientists from a wide range of disciplines in over 10 countries who discussed various issues related to climate change. The multidisciplinary nature of the meeting allowed for the exchange of insights from such diverse fields as geology, biology, archaeology, soil science, and climatology, in a lively discussion on the nature of past climate change and it's relevance to future models for climate evolution caused by human intervention.

A number of M.Sc. students have taken advantage of the Chair's projects, and have completed their theses on issues directly related to desert studies. They have completed projects both in the fields of hydrogeology and climate change.

Ongoing projects

One of the most exciting projects being conducted a the moment involves the study of shallow (<10 m) aquifers present at a number of locations in the Badia. These shallow aquifers are exciting because they both have the potential to provide previously untapped water to the inhabitants of the area as well as the can provide much needed insight on the nature and amount of recharge occurring presently there. Proposals have been submitted to the Badia Research and Development Programme, the Arid Lands Consortium and the International Research and Development Center (Canada) to provide the funding needed for the full understanding needed for theses systems.

The project being implemented for the ALESCO in cooperation with ACSAD will also provide the needed insight for the understanding of the age and movement of groundwater in the major upper aquifer on a regional scale. Such regional projects are needed for full appreciation of the regional groundwater setting.

The study of climate and environmental change is a major focus of the Chair. Currently, we are working on climate change indicators present in the Qa's (playas) of the Badia as a project funded by the Badia Programme. An M.Sc. student is currently completing his thesis on the sedimentology and paleohydrology of Qa' Habbaibya, and similar project is being completed in Qa' Selma. Preliminary results of these projects suggest that climatic conditions during the Quaternary have been drastically different from those we see today. Hydrological balances for both Qa's suggest times of higher rainfall had supplies of three to four times the present rainwater input. The implications of these results for future climate scenarios are as yet not clear.

Future plans

In addition to the completion and expansion of ongoing projects, new ideas are currently being developed, particularly related to climate change. The interdisciplinary nature of climate change came into sharp focus during the "Learning from the past" conference in May, 1998. In particular, it is now clear that archaeological sites in Jordan contain an abundance of data on the nature of climate during antiquity. Given that human settlements spanning the entire Holocene, the interaction of Man and his environment can be studied on a scale which is not available any where else in the world. The interesting point here is that the issue is not simple climate fluctuation, but how has Man effected the environment of the area through grazing, farming, mining and building activities through the last 10,000 years. Of course, there is a climate change component involved, but this may not be the entire environmental change picture.

Through cooperation with archaeologists working at various locations in Jordan, as well as at the Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at Yarmouk, it is hoped that a chronology of environmental change using cultural remains and historical evidence can be accurately reconstructed. If this ambitious project is to succeed, an accurate dating system for archaeological materials and sediments needs to be in place. The Chair hopes to be able to set up a Optically Simulated Luminescence/Thermoluminescence (OSL/TL) laboratory capable of accurate dating of both pottery and windblown sediments which are used to identify the ages of archaeological material. The establishment of such a lab will provide the structural basis needed for the reconstruction of the environmental history of Jordan.

The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have become an integral part of any group wishing to seriously discuss issues such as land planning and monitoring of environmental degradation. It is an ambition of the Chair to set up a GIS and remote sensing laboratory which can be used for serious monitoring and quantifying of changes in land use and desertification in Jordan. A remote sensing laboratory and appropriate satellite images can also be used to help identify shallow aquifers and other natural resources in the Jordanian Badia.

The Chair is in the process of developing a number of educational opportunities for the students of the Faculty of Science at Yarmouk. There has been an agreement in principle to establish a joint field course with the University of Wein (Austria) for desert ecology. This course will be offered to students from both universities and will involve a training component using the latest field equipment used in monitoring the various aspects of plant ecology in desert regions.

A similar course is being planned with the DRI to establish a joint field course in desert geomorphology. It is hoped that this course will attract students from the Universities of Nevada at Reno and Las Vegas as well as students from Yarmouk. We hope that both of these courses can be offered in the Summer of 1999.

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