By Ali Mirchi and Kaveh Madani

Can Iran lead a global fight against dust storms?

July 3, 2017 - 18:47
High-level international delegations meet in Tehran to discuss anthropogenic dust bowls as a global environmental threat

In the last two years, the UN passed four resolutions on sand and dust storms in an attempt to facilitate a global political will to tackle this pressing environmental problem.

In the last two years, the UN passed four resolutions on sand and dust storms  in an attempt to facilitate a global political will to tackle this pressing environmental problem. Now an international conference hosted by Iran and UN has brought together leaders and experts from 34 countries to discuss ways to combat dust storms and form partnerships to take action. 

The occasion presents Iran with an opportunity to lead an important global environmental cause in accordance with the UN General Assembly resolution on combating sand and dust storms, an outcome of the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP 22)  to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Marrakech. The conference is expected to reach “a ministerial declaration by leaders of some of the countries … saying this is a problem [and] we agree to take every step that we can to try to address it” says Gary Lewis, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Iran. 

Sand and dust storms are emerging as a global environmental problem. Annually, about 2,000 million tons of dust is emitted into the atmosphere with significant consequences for the environment and socio-economic status of population centers in the world’s “dust belt.” Hotter and drier climatic conditions and, more importantly, anthropogenic changes worsen the situation by turning drying lake beds into new sources of dust in arid and semi-arid regions. Faster and stronger winds carry larger amounts of dust. 

Human health issues related to airborne dust are ubiquitous and growing, including increased respiratory and infectious diseases leading to premature death. Children and the elderly and those with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases or frequently exposed to dust storms are particularly vulnerable. The phenomenon also takes lives in transportation accidents due to poor visibility.  

The Sahara in Africa is the major source of dust particles that travel thousands of kilometers around the world. The Sahara’s eastward dust plumes plague the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and reach as far as the Himalayas and China. Europe receives about 80 to 120 million tons of Sahara dust per year while between 30-50% of the lifted dust moves westward, some reaching all the way to the Caribbean. 

Although about 75% of sand and dust storms are due to natural biogeochemical cycles of the Earth, poor water and land management exacerbate the phenomenon significantly. About 85% of anthropogenic dust emissions are related to mismanagement of bodies of water. 

Iran seems to have good incentives to spearhead a global move to combat dust storms. The nation has been grappling with choking storms of dust that cripple everyday activities.  Scorching heat waves frequently hit the country’s southwest with temperatures rising to a record 54 ᵒC in the city of Ahvaz , close to hottest temperature ever measured in the world.  Once mostly concentrated in the southwest and southeast of Iran, sand and dust storms are hitting vast areas in north central parts of the country-- including the capital, Tehran.

Iran is increasingly recognizing environmental problems as issues of national security. Like many other developing countries, the nation is following the footsteps of the developed world by pursuing rapid infrastructural development with widespread detrimental effects to natural resources and ecosystems

There are historical evidences of successful mitigation of anthropogenic dust storms. In the 1930s, massive dust storms driven by strip farming on prairie grasslands in the U.S. high-plains forced hundreds of thousands of people to migrate out of affected areas. American legislation addressed the problem by enacting Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1936.

Complex political affairs in the Middle East pose a formidable challenge to solve transboundary environmental issues. Years of war, political misalignments, and terrorism have worsened environmental problems in this volatile region. Abandoned farmlands in Syria and Iraq as well as marshes that were drained and burned during Saddam Hussein’s era are examples of contemporary man-made dust sources in the region. Despite the burgeoning sense of urgency, recent political tensions after Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt cut ties with Qatar leave dim hope for concerted regional efforts to fight dust storms.   

Sustainable water and land management and fighting desertification are key to reducing human-induced sand and dust storms. Many short- to long-term measures exist, including sand dune stabilization by reestablishing and expanding vegetative cover, reducing soil erosion by dampening the erosive effect of wind, water and soil conservation in agricultural areas, ensuring environmental water supply to increase soil moisture in areas of concern, and preventing negative hydrological disturbance of dust sources by short-sighted water resources management plans. It is also important to plan to adapt to more frequent and intense dust storms in the region. Adaptation efforts can target building codes, investment in health care, and warning and monitoring systems, among others.

If not mitigated, the consequences of large-scale dust storms can be catastrophic and the world is bound to pay a high price for this transboundary, transgenerational problem. The Tehran conference is an important international platform to raise awareness about sand and dust storms, facilitate knowledge and expertise transfer, and encourage international collaborations to implement solutions. 

Daunting environmental threats can unite countries to think seriously about the problems as was the case in the Paris climate summit . While lack of legal binding and enforcement mechanisms weakens tangible outcomes from global environmental agreements, recognizing the dust storm phenomenon as one of the world’s most significant environmental threats in the 21st century is critical for international cooperation to respond to this challenge. 

Ali Mirchi is a research assistant professor of water resources engineering and management at the Department of Civil Engineering and the Center for Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Kaveh Madani , recipient of the Arne Richter award for outstanding young scientists in 2016 and the Walter Huber research prize in 2017, is an environmental management expert and a reader of systems analysis and policy at the Centre for Environmental Policy of Imperial College, London.

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