12 July 2023 marks the first-ever International Day of Combating Sand and Dust Storms (SDS). The recent United Nations designation is indicative of concern about the growing severity and widespread effects of these hazards.
In 2022, dust storms affected countries from Turkey to Oman, hitting Iraq particularly badly. While orange skies are a natural climatic feature of the region, the severity, frequency and duration of the dust storms in recent years has drawn attention to what is changing.
Dust storms occur in arid and semi-arid environments when winds whip up, suspend and transport loose soil particles. Dust storm particles are less than 0.05 mm in diameter and can be transported thousands of kilometres, distinguishing them from sandstorm particles which are larger and travel, at most, a few kilometres.
The damming of rivers, poor land and water management practices and the militarization of land intensifies the problem. Governments in the Middle East, distracted by conflict and fragile economic conditions, have not prioritized land conservation. In Syria and Iraq, for example, years of air strikes and ground battles have stirred up the soil. Both this and desperate economic conditions have led to the destruction of plant and forest cover across vast areas.
Climate change is compounding this problem. Drought creates sources of dust by degrading soil and accelerating desertification. Longer and harsher droughts, brought on by climate change, transform land which may once have returned to its previously fertile state into a permanent source of dust.
On the Afghanistan-Iran border, for example, the Hamun Lake and wetlands have been shrinking, with drying intensifying over the last 30 years as a result of both manmade upstream water diversion and extreme droughts. According to an Iranian study, the drying of water bodies leads to increases in dust emissions of up to 80 per cent.
The human cost
Dust storms can be ecologically beneficial, playing an important role in transporting soil nutrients. But the impact on human societies can be devastating. There are immediate risks, as demonstrated by the deaths and injuries from a dust-storm induced vehicle pile-up in the US state of Illinois in May 2023. Long-term health is at risk from the tiny particles which exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular problems and can spread airborne pathogens. Dust storms can also lead to crop failure and animal deaths and therefore threaten communities with fragile food security.
The harmful effects of dust storms can ‘cascade’ through societies by interrupting critical infrastructure. In February 2017, electrostatic discharges generated by a dust storm caused power transformers to short circuit in the Iranian oil-producing province of Khuzestan. Oil production fell by 700,000 barrels in a single day. Many cities, including the provincial capital Ahvaz, experienced crippling power cuts for up to 24 hours. Mobile and internet services went down, schools and public offices were forced to close for several days and hospitals struggled with limited backup power. This drove people already frustrated with unemployment and water shortages to protest.
In a region riven with geopolitical tension, dust storms can fuel a blame game. In Iran, officials have often placed responsibility with their neighbours, blaming the 2017 storm in Khuzestan on poor land and water management in Iraq. Similarly, in 2022, the head of Iran’s Department of the Environment, Ali Salajegheh, accused both Saudi Arabia and Turkey of fuelling the recent dust storms.
Although Turkey is not a major source of dust, its extensive programme of dam-building on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has reduced water flows in downstream countries, leading to vegetation loss and the expansion of dust storm hotspots. As climate change reduces precipitation and increases rates of evaporation, access to water becomes intertwined with national security. A future dust storm could light the fuse of interstate conflict in the Middle East, the consequences of which would spread well beyond the region.
Solutions must address not only the failures of transboundary governance but also those of national governance. Iraq, where most of the agricultural land suffers from – or is at risk of – desertification, provides a case in point. Oil revenues account for 85 per cent of the national budget, creating a system geared towards serving the hydrocarbons sector, to the detriment of sectors such as agriculture and water.
There is scope for collaborative action to tackle both the immediate and long-term negative effects of dust storms.
As members of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), all countries in the region benefit from the Sand and Dust Storm Warning Advisory and Assessment System (SDS-WAS) programme, which provides the knowledge and technology required to both mitigate dust storms and reduce their impact. Saudi Arabia received WMO accreditation for its own regional centre for sand and dust storm warning in July 2023.
Some national governments have launched large-scale tree planting initiatives to increase green cover and reduce dust pickup, notably in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It is critical that these use native species, nurture attendant soil-stabilizing plant cover, foster livelihoods and learn from each other in scaling up.
Civil society organizations and local communities have been working for years to restore degraded land which has become a source of dust, such as that surrounding the Tigris River, albeit under repressive governmental and security constraints.