Rising heat drives crippling sandstorms across the Middle East – Middle East Monitor
For the past two months, Iraqis have lived, worked and breathed in thick clouds of dust, as at least nine sandstorms – lasting up to several days each – battered the country, blanketing all sand.
Hospitals reported an increase in admissions, with thousands of patients suffering from serious respiratory illnesses, while schools and offices had to close and flights were blocked for days.
“I can’t go out without coughing or covering my mouth,” said Azzam Alwash, founder of the non-governmental green group Nature Iraq. Thomson Reuters Foundation from his home in Baghdad.
The latest storm “kept me in the house for two days. I have asthma so I have to stay indoors to protect my lungs,” he said.
Iraq, Iran, Syria and other Gulf states are no strangers to sand and dust storms (SDS) which have historically occurred during the hot months of May through July, when strong winds from the northwest carry large amounts of dust to parts of the region.
But, these days, the storms are coming earlier and more frequently, rising well above normal once or twice a year, starting as early as March and spreading over a wider area.
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As governments struggle to cope with the dusty onslaught, environmentalists and government officials say the threat is a combination of climate change and poor water management practices that together are transforming more of the soil of the region in sand.
They warn that rising temperatures and changing weather patterns suggest the worst is yet to come unless governments can work together to reduce climate-altering emissions and reduce the health and financial impacts of sand waves sweeping the region.
“Increased droughts are of particular concern,” said Kaveh Zahedi, deputy executive secretary for sustainable development at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
He said affected countries should invest in early warning and forecasting systems, develop more effective water and land management policies, and put in place insurance and social protection measures to help most vulnerable communities to recover from storms.
A perfect storm
Traveling thousands of miles, each sand and dust storm can wreak havoc in a dozen countries.
According to a 2019 World Bank report, they damage buildings, power lines and other vital infrastructure, kill crops, reduce driver visibility and disrupt air, rail and sea transport.
The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) loses an estimated $13 billion a year to sandstorms, from cleanup and recovery costs to treating health issues and declining productivity, says The report.
Kaveh Madani, a researcher specializing in environmental justice, security and diplomacy at the City College of New York, said the dangers posed by sand and dust storms have been overlooked by local and international governments for too long.
“This cross-border, cross-generational problem … only gets more dangerous every year,” said Madani, who previously served as deputy head of Iran’s environment department.
“It is truly disappointing to see that one of the most debilitating environmental issues of the 21st century is not being properly recognized by leading intergovernmental and scientific agencies,” he said in a telephone interview.
The Middle East has always been naturally plagued by strong winds, dry ground and hot weather which combined provide the perfect conditions for sand and dust storms.
But climate experts say rising heat, coupled with decades of poor water management and inefficient farming practices, has degraded land across the region, making it easier to catch and sweep dust particles on large areas.
A report released by the International Monetary Fund in March shows that since the 1990s the Middle East has been warming twice as fast as the global average.
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In many countries in the MENA region, 85% of the water is destined for agricultural uses, according to the World Bank.
Climate experts say unsustainable agricultural practices such as overgrazing, excessive use of chemicals and machinery, and excessive irrigation – often encouraged by heavily subsidized water tariffs – contribute to desertification in the region. region.
Also to blame, Madani said, are chains of dams being built on some of the region’s major rivers, which can block water flowing to wetlands. Conflicts can also force farmers to flee, leaving their land to become barren and dry.
“Add to that mix the problem of deforestation, land use change, abandoned farmland…and you have the recipe for more frequent and intense dust storms,” he said.
“Tense political relations between some of the countries hardest hit by the sandstorms are hampering negotiations on how to resolve the problem,” said Erik Solheim, who served as executive director of the United Nations Environment Program between 2016 and 2018.
But some countries have made individual efforts to combat dust storms in the region.
Saudi Arabia has pledged to plant 10 billion trees – an ambitious goal for a country with limited renewable water resources – within its own borders in a bid to reduce carbon emissions and reverse rampant land degradation.
Trees can revive parched land by trapping more rain in the soil and slowing the evaporation of water from the earth, while their roots bind the soil and prevent erosion.
In 2016, the Abu Dhabi-based Masdar Institute of Science and Technology launched an online modeling system that provides near real-time maps of atmospheric dust and other pollutant concentrations in the region.
But the environmental experts who spoke with the Thomson Reuters Foundation said existing measures are not enough to prepare the region for the extreme dust storms that worsening climate change could bring.
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“Unless immediate and serious action is taken in the Middle East to address the problem of dust storms, consequences such as the forced migration of people may turn (the storms) into a global problem rather than a regional problem. “, said Madani.
Solheim, currently a senior adviser to the World Resources Institute think tank, is among several experts and officials calling for UN climate talks this year in Egypt and next year in the United Arab Emirates. to become a forum for governments to engage in diplomacy aimed at stemming the scourge of sandstorms.
“A lot of other environmental issues are on the agenda, but sand and dust storms have barely come up in the climate talks,” Solheim said.
“(The problem) was considered a secondary issue, even though it is one of the most harmful environmental problems for human beings.”
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.