Small harbours can become great cities. Great cities can be desertifed

Once upon a time there was a small harbour on the edge of a great desert. The people lived happily, worshiped Allah, caught fish and raided passing mariners. British galleons came to stop the piracy. Later, the infidels discovered oil and water lurking far beneath the desert sands – and pumped them up. The small harbour grew to be a great city. Allah made the people rich, but he disliked the western ways.
Then an oil well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico. It too was run by the British and it made the seas filthy. Everybody hated this. So the Americans, the Chinese the Europeans and the Australians (who foresaw a comparable fate) hurled resources into energy research. In the first decade of the 21st century the Americans had spent more money on pet food than on energy research. In the second decade, the money spent on energy research towered over that spent by Russia and America on Atom Bombs, Ballistic Missiles and Moon Landings. Europe decided that the Romans and been geographically correct, so they invited North Africa to join the EU and then carpeted half the Sahara Desert with solar cells. Solar energy became so cheap that 75% of the world’s oil wells were shut down.
The great city on the Arabian Gulf spent its last tourism and oil revenues on solar-powered desalination, but global warming had made the region so hot that no one wanted to be there, even in winter, and the fossil water resources were all gone. So the great city which had been a small port, called Dubai, was abandonned like the Roman towns in North Africa.
The last woman to leave was heard to say: ‘Sheik Yamani, peace be upon him, was right “The Stone Age did not come to an end because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age did not come to an end because we had a lack of oil”‘
The last man to leave turned out the lights and muttered: ‘Allah be praised, Allah be delighted, blessed be the name of Allah to all Eternity’.

Policy implications of desertification
So the question is: what should be done to prepare for desertification? My belief is that instead of beeing looted as it is vacated, which is the usual fate of abandonned cities, Dubai should be carefully buried in sand for the benefit of future archaeologists. As at Pompeii, everything should be left, including furnishings, computers, books, booze, gold taps and porno videos (if present). The strongest argument for this approach is safety. A near-empty city could be more dangerous than Afghanistan. To make the deserted desert city safe, I imagine the best policy would be to explode a perimeter ring of buildings and add in other debris (eg cars) to make a barrier which would cause blown sand to accumulate. Wind tunnel tests should be put in hand to see if there are any urban design and planning measures which could assist the accumulation. Previous work on coastal sand dune stabilization would be useful.

Image note: the left part of the image is from a NASA photograph of Dubai; the right part of the image is of Devonian sandstone laid down under desert conditions near the Equator and then moved to Scotland by continental drift. The ‘lumps’ are breccia which became incorporated in the sandstone at the lower horizon of the sedimenary deposition. In geological time, everything changes.

8 thoughts on “Small harbours can become great cities. Great cities can be desertifed

  1. Tom Turner Post author

    I would also like to see municipal dumps managed as future archaeological sites. So much has been learned from burials of humans and their refuse.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    At present landfill sites are managed to (1) take up as little space as possible, so they crush the materials with heavy-duty sheepsfoot rollers (2) try to compost organic material to generate methane.
    I would like to see rubbish dumps with archaeological layers of un-crushed waste – with water-proof layers above and below. Far more interesting than the occasional time capsules that are burried, they would have complete sets of detritus: foodstuffs, newspapers, books, toiletries, computers, iPods, cameras, clothing, medical equipment, furniture, EVERYTHING.
    It would also make sense to treat a discarded Gulf City as an archaeological reserve. Lots of them will become available for this purpose when the oil runs out.

  3. christine

    One of my very favourite spaces for a while was an abandoned resort on an island where peacocks used to wander through the gardens, weaving dreamily between palm trees. I was a little disappointed when I eventually heard it was being redeveloped.

    Perhaps they could begin Indiana Jones style adventure tourism tours to the Gulf City?

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    Ruins have romantic charm in high degree and this is, I suppose, the most likely fate of the Gulf cities. English ‘Grand Tourists’ used to return home with chunks of Roman ruins so I guess the day will dawn when patinated gold taps will decorate the living rooms of Europe.
    See Wiki on Ghost Towns for a list of the deserted and abandonned cities in which Dubai can be expected to appear at some point in the not-too-distant future. If the pessimists are right about climate change and global warming then these phenomena will make substantial additions to the list of deserted cities. An OECD report on the cities most at risk from global warming gave the following Top Ten cities at risk: Kolkata, Mumbai, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Bangkok, Rangoon, Miami, Hai Phong. But this list is only of cities at risk from coastal flooding. Desertification is another landscape problem which demands planning. “The greatest risk of desertification (7.6 out of 10 on a scale produced using various desertification indicators) is in the subtropical desert regions – North Africa, the countries of the Middle East, Australia, South West China and the western edge of South America”. The UK is thought be one of the regions least at risk so the choices for the UK population may be (1) ring the coasts with guns to keep out climate change refugees (2) convert the British Isles into a single megacity, like Hong Kong but bigger. If this is to be done, I would like to support John Claudius Loudon’s 1829 proposal for planning the long-term expansion of London ‘until’ it meets the seas. There is going to be a lot of work for landscape planners, landscape architects, garden designers and others who can help plan the ‘new landscapes for our new lives’ (in Nan Fairbrother’s famous phrase).

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    We have a remarkable system in the UK for (1) subsidising sheep farmers who prevent the growth of trees in upland areas (2) subsidising foresters to plant conifers on hills which have been denuded by sheep farmers.


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