Dust storms are travelling thousands of kilometres, carrying pathogens such as meningitis or distributing fungi as well as causing acute or chronic respiratory complications.
Desertification is giving rise to concerns in Middle Eastern and African nations around the world amid an unprecedented number of sandstorms that delayed flights and closed schools in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria and the UAE.
Climate experts warn that severe weather could worsen as climate change leads to changing weather patterns and impacted ecosystems.
“Even if rainfall stays the same, we’re going to have more drought events, because more evaporation will take place, irrigation channels will evaporate more, and plants will use more water. This is a problem,” says Robert Stefanski, head of the applied climate services division for the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) speaking to RFI.
Ashes and dust
Iraq has been particularly hard hit with ten sandstorms in two months, seeing thousands in hospitals for respiratory difficulties.
In an early April interview, Essa Raheem Dakheel al Fayadh, Director-General at the Iraqi Ministry of Health and Environment forecasts dust storm frequency will reach 243 days a year over the next two decades.
“In 2050, Iraq will have 300 days of dust storms throughout the year,” he adds.
In November 2021, the World Bank warned that increasing water scarcity could lead to a 20 per cent decrease in Iraq’s water supply, with a similar impact on its agricultural yield and expected net GDP contraction of $6.6 billion.
According to a study carried out by the Iraqi Ministry of Health and Environment in partnership with international experts, Iraq will face additional drought, desertification, and floods in the next decade.
A 2014 World Meteorological Organization study also found that high dust exposure in areas impacted by desertification is responsible for nearly 400,000 early deaths among adults a year.
UN Environment Programme findings suggest that dust borne by storms can travel thousands of kilometres, carrying pathogens such as meningitis or distributing fungi as well as causing acute or chronic respiratory complications.
Dust and sand storms also speed up desertification, increase salinity, further drought and reduce water supply.
Drought is a particular concern for the Middle East and Africa, which needs to provide for an expected population of 3 billion by 2050. The Max Planck Institute warns of areas of the Middle East becoming uninhabitable, concluding that summer temperatures in the Middle East will increase at twice the normal global average.
For instance, the temperate Mediterranean is expected to reach 46 degrees Celsius by 2050. By 2100, extreme heatwaves are predicted to occur ten times more frequently, while extreme weather becomes the norm.
Researchers warn that temperatures in the region could eventually begin at 30 degrees Celsius, reaching highs of 50 degrees Celsius five times more often than at the beginning of the millennium.
Their key warning? Drought and water scarcity could trigger further waves of migration as water-stressed nations try to contend with rapid population growth, increasing urbanization, decaying infrastructure and changing weather patterns.
A deeply complex challenge to address, dust and sand storms are also impacted by overgrazing, fluctuating precipitation, and decreasing water levels; all of which can speed up desertification.
Coordinated international action could be the only way to make a difference for countries trying to get a grip on the problem.
Drought and displacement
On May 9 2022, 196 countries gathered at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification held in Abidjan, Ivory Coast to address the rising challenge. Speaking at the event Ivory Coast President Allassane Outtara warned that Africa has lost nearly 80 per cent of its forest cover since 1900, with the risk of forests disappearing altogether by 2050.
The UN’s desertification agency estimates that nearly 40 per cent of the world’s land is degraded, in part due to unsustainable land, agricultural and water management practices, among others.
Ambitious efforts to combat desertification include the ‘Great Green Wall,’ an 8,000-kilometre vegetative shield to be planted across Sub-Saharan Africa in a bid to restore 100 million hectares of land. In 2020, a progress report showed that only 4 per cent of its target had been achieved.
Mismanagement of non-renewable water sources, agriculture, irrigation and urbanization are common challenges faced by most nations in the Middle East and Africa. When compounded with low precipitation, encroaching deserts, and arid low-lying terrain, desertification is nearly unavoidable.
With nearly two billion tonnes of dust originating yearly from the world’s deserts, steady desertification poses an intractable problem for food and water security, to say nothing of public health.
While the role climate change plays is not fully understood, there is growing global consensus that increasing heatwaves, drought and environmental degradation is likely to continue driving insecurity, impact economic output and force human displacement.