At least one dust storm started Monday in Iraq and traveled to Saudi Arabia, satellite images showed. NASA data show dust reaching more than three miles into the sky, said Morgan State University and NASA scientist Hiren Jethva. The layer of dust has thinned over Saudi Arabia Thursday and migrated to the Red Sea.
On Monday, more than 1,000 people were hospitalized across Iraq with respiratory problems, health ministry spokesman Seif al-Badr said. told Agence France-Presse. The Iraqi government declared a national holiday on Monday to keep people at home.
Flights were briefly grounded in Kuwait for the second time this month. Authorities have warned drivers in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to move slowly. Schools and government offices in Tehran were closed last week, and hundreds of people in southern Iran sought medical help for respiratory problems and flights were delayed, according to the Associated Press. reported.
Sand and dust storms, known as haboobs, have always been a feature of life in the Middle East, a region known for its deserts. Storms intensify in late spring and summer as seasonal northwesterly winds, known as “shamals”, lift dust from the Tigris-Euphrates basin and carry it to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula.
But experts say this year’s storms are particularly intense as climate change and desertification increase their frequency. In Iraq, at least nine major storms have hit the country since April. Others are likely to materialize over the summer and, without major policy changes, could continue to worsen in years to come.
“We’ve had a lot more dust storms this spring than in the past,” Salam Abdulrahman, senior lecturer at the University of Human Development in Iraq, said in an email. “Each dust storm lasted from one day to 2-3 days. Previous dust storms were shorter.
Benjamin Cook, an environmental scientist at Columbia University’s Climate School, said three things are needed for a sandstorm to take off: wind, a source of dust where there is little or no vegetation and very dry conditions.
The recent Storms in Iraq are due in part to a lack of rain, water flow problems and human activity.
2020-21 was the second driest rainfall season in 40 years, resulting in poor harvests. Conditions remain poor. In most of the country, groundwater storage, used for crop irrigation and drinking water, is nearing its lowest levels compared to long-term records, according to NASA data.
The limited water stunts the growth of vegetation, which loosens the surface for dust storms, Abdulrahman said. He said some residents in Iraq now refer to dust storm activity as “soil fall” or “earth fall,” because the winds are lifting layers of soil.
Wetlands in southern Iraq and Iran, where many people live off the land, are drying up.
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Ismael al Ameri, a researcher at Birkbeck, University of London, said the near disappearance of Al Sawa, a salt lake about 150 miles south of Baghdad, will leave a new source of mud, silt and salt for the sandstorms. The construction of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has made the problem worse, he said, and more broadly, military operations in Iraq since 2003 have also damaged topsoil.
In Iran and Iraq, the storms are also linked to the region’s agricultural practices and the mismanagement of shared rivers, said Banafsheh Keynoush, a nonresident researcher with the Middle East Institute’s Iran program.
The conditions causing the dust storms have been exacerbated by human-induced climate change. The Middle East is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the world, which warmed up about 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times.
Warmer temperatures, coupled with growing water supply problems, are preparing the desert region for more dust storms.
“These weather extremes are widely reported as clear indicators of climate change,” said al Ameri, who has previously written on the subject. “This is combined with an increase in recurring storm activity, not only in spring and summer, but also in fall and winter.”
An Iraqi Environment Ministry official said the country’s dusty days had fallen from 243 to 272 days a year over two decades, according to data from the General Authority of Meteorology. He said Iraq could face nearly 300 days of dust storms a year by 2050, according to the Iraqi News Agency. reported.
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Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi told his cabinet this month that the dust storms illustrate the effects of climate change and that “urgent action” must be taken, according to a reading out loud Of the reunion.
Abdulrahman said dust storms lead to greater water consumption, exacerbating shortages. “After every dust storm, people should wash their homes, yards, cars, and the trees and plants they have in their gardens,” he said.
Eerie orange skies and sand-covered streets come at a significant cost, as workers are forced to stay home, governments must invest in response and mitigation measures, factories close and flights are grounded . Dust storms also damage crops and deplete fertile soils. The United Nations estimates that the Middle East and North Africa loses about $13 billion in gross domestic product each year due to these storms.
They also have a health cost. Exposure to a sandstorm can cause coughing, runny nose, asthma attacks, eye irritation and other problems. In addition to natural particles, storms carry harmful pollutants. The elderly, children and people with respiratory illnesses, heart problems and other pre-existing conditions are particularly vulnerable, the Iraqi government has warned.
Hospitalizations in Iraq on Monday came two weeks after a storm sent at least 4,000 people to hospital with breathing problems. Another dust storm earlier in May left one dead, according to Agence France-Presse. Three people have died and hundreds have been hospitalized in eastern Syria’s Deir al-Zour province due to a sandstorm earlier this month, the Associated Press reported. Hospitals were on standby again this week as the latest storm hit the area.
The Saudi Food and Drug Authority on Tuesday called on people to wear masks and abstaining from eating foods exposed to the open air to protect against harmful particles carried by thunderstorms.
Planting trees and other vegetation is one solution. During the Dust Bowl in the United States in the 1930s, the federal government planted millions of trees to prevent the ground from continuing to blow across the Great Plains. These “windbreaks” or “green belts” reduce soil erosion and preserve soil moisture.
Saudi Arabia plans to plant 10 billion trees over the next few decades to reduce its carbon footprint and land degradation. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year unveiled a United Nations-acclaimed “Middle East Green Initiative” to work with other Arab countries to plant 40 billion more in the region.
Iran, a regional rival, has spent 450 million euros ($483 million) over the past three years to mitigate sandstorm hotspots in the country by planting trees, stabilizing soil, constructing windbreaks and other measures, according to the Tehran Times.
Iraq has been experimenting with this strategy for more than a decade, planting eucalyptus, olive and date palms as part of a plan to protect the central city of Karbala, one of Iraq’s Shia holy cities. But construction delays, lack of funding and negligence contributed to the failure of the project, Agence France-Presse reported. Some blame financial mismanagement.
On May 10, the cabinet ordered the Finance Ministry to disburse some $2 million to implement a sand dune stabilization project, the Iraqi News Agency reported.
Governments in the region have invested in early warning and sandstorm monitoring systems, Keynoush said.
But regional governments should take stronger collective action to tackle the problem, she said. “We need to be ahead of the sandstorms rather than the sandstorms being ahead of us.”