Ya-Ching Lin shares how climate disasters inspired her to pursue conservation work at the Desert Museum. Ya-Ching is the Museum’s GIS Analyst, working primarily on invasive species removal efforts. February 28th – March 4th is the National Invasive Species Awareness Week and the last week of Save Our Saguaros Month. Learn more about the campaign at buffelgrass.org!
By Ya-Ching Lin
I joined the Desert Museum as a GIS Specialist just before the pandemic began. I was finishing a degree in Geographic Information Systems Technology at the University of Arizona and was looking to increase my practical experience in this new field. The opportunity to do so in a job related to conservation in the Sonoran Desert was exactly what I had hoped for.
Prior to transitioning to GIS, I spent over twenty years working as a field coordinator and epidemiologist in international medical projects, primarily in complex humanitarian emergencies in Africa and Asia. The work was engaging and fulfilling, and I witnessed both the best and the worst of humanity, very often side-by–side. I began noticing that an increasing number of these humanitarian emergencies were caused or exacerbated by climate change. This was particularly evident in my last three assignments before joining the Desert Museum.
In 2017, I was sent to a remote part of Ethiopia, on the border with Somalia, to investigate reports of population displacement and food insecurity associated with a severe drought. The Horn of Africa is no stranger to drought, but these days it is becoming more frequent with less recovery time between drought events. By the time I arrived at my destination, all the cows had died and their carcasses could be seen along the roads. The goats were dying quickly and the camels were just starting to die off. While other food prices increased, meat prices plummeted as desperate owners tried to sell their livestock before they died. Thousands of nomadic herding families crowded into the towns, placing added strain on scarce resources.
It didn’t take long for the most vulnerable to start succumbing to the rough living conditions. Childhood malnutrition rates soared and many were not recovering, sadly evidenced by the number of small fresh graves in the cemeteries. And then, to top it all off, a cholera epidemic struck, spreading quickly through the few existing water sources. With barely enough water to drink, basic hygiene measures were impossible to follow. It would take months before the epidemic would be contained and even longer before the malnutrition could be treated. As I write this now in early 2022, the Horn of Africa has endured three consecutive years of poor rains. Another severe drought, worse than in 2017, is predicted for this year.
The following year, I traveled to Benue State in Nigeria, an area known for its rich farmlands on the southern edge of the African Sahel. Recently, however, it has become part of a growing conflict mirrored across West Africa where nomadic pastoralists move further and further south with their cattle during the dry season, destroying fields and triggering bloody conflict with agricultural communities. Thousands have died over the last decade, while tens of thousands more have fled their villages seeking safety in displaced persons camps. Some would call this an inter-tribal conflict, others a Christian-Muslim religious war, and yet others point at politicians who manipulate facts to stoke hate and prejudice for their own political benefit. Yet no one denies the fact that growing desertification is a problem as the Sahara expands southward, eating up pastures and threatening the livelihoods of communities in the sahel.
My last assignment was in Mozambique, in the aftermath of cylone Idaï in 2019. With its long coastline, Mozambique has seen cyclones before, but they tended to spare the more densely populated part of the country. Cyclone Idaï was different. Not only did it slam into the coastal city of Beira, causing massive destruction in a city the size of Tucson, but, super-loaded with warm waters, it crawled inland, causing catastrophic rainfall and flooding in three countries. It is one thing to see a storm modeled in a weather report, but something else entirely to hear a woman tell you in person how she and her children spent four days without food in a tree suspended over crocodile-infested waters.
Idaï is, to date, the second deadliest tropical cyclone on record in the southern hemisphere, claiming at least 1,300 lives. Unfortunately, the story of Idaï is no longer exceptional. Even before I left Mozambique, cyclone Kenneth had made landfall in the north of the country, only to be followed by several others in the years since. Just recently, friends in Mozambique were bailing water again following tropical storm Ana’s landfall on January 23, 2022. These storms are bigger and move slower than before, causing more flooding further inland in new areas where people are unprepared to cope with this type of disaster.
Which brings us back to the Sonoran Desert. After decades of relief work, I welcome the chance to be part of an effort to develop good practices in environmental stewardship in my own community. The spread of invasive grasses like buffelgrass and red brome threatens our native plants and wildlife by initiating a fire cycle in which these invasive species thrive and spread further, killing saguaros and crowding out native grasses and shrubs. Wildfires are thus becoming increasingly common in an ecosystem that is not fire-adapted. Climate change only exacerbates this issue.
Certain types of change can only happen from within. Resilience takes time to develop. And I don’t miss the jetlag.
Cover photo by Jim Witkowski.