Since mid-April, Iraq has experienced seven sandstorms. This phenomenon, which is getting worse year by year, represents a serious threat to the health and economy of the countries of the Middle East. In question, global warming, desertification, as well as armed conflicts.
Nothing seems to be able to stop them. Within minutes, they engulfed entire cities in a thick mist of orange dust. People are suffocating outside and life stops. Sandstorms have always been a part of daily life for Iraqis, but their frequency and intensity have continued to increase in recent years, amplified by global warming, desertification and armed conflict.
Since April, the country has already experienced seven sandstorms. The latest attack on Thursday caused one death and another 5,000 hospitalized with respiratory problems.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Saif Al-Badr, said in a press statement that “the majority have left the hospitals,” referring to the cases that are mostly “medium or low severity.”
He added that the most affected are those with “chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma” or “the elderly” who suffer in particular from “heart failure”.
Billions of dollars have gone to dust
In addition to these health consequences, these extremes are a wound to an already bloodless Iraqi economy. Thus, the airports of Baghdad, Najaf and Erbil in Kurdistan were forced to suspend their flights for a short period due to the lack of visibility.
As reported by the World Meteorological Organization, sand also has many adverse effects on agriculture. It reduces yield by smothering seedlings, reduces photosynthesis and increases soil erosion.
In addition, dust deposits promote clogging of irrigation canals or deteriorate water quality in rivers and streams.
During these storms, many activities had to stop, causing the countries of the region to lose astronomical sums. According to the United Nations, the region of North Africa and the Middle East annually sees nearly 13 billion of GDP crumble to dust.
In September 2015, a giant sandstorm swept across much of the Middle East, leading to airport closures, road accidents and hospitalizations.
Things are expected to continue to deteriorate. Over the next two decades, Iraq may experience “272 dust days” annually, and in 2050, the threshold of 300 days a year will be reached, a senior Ministry of Environment official confirmed in early April.
Sandstorms usually occur when strong winds blow large amounts of sand and dust from dry, bare ground into the atmosphere.
However, these arid and semi-arid soils are gaining ground in Iraq and the Middle East, particularly under the influence of global warming. As temperatures rise, sometimes exceeding 50 degrees, and precipitation decreases, periods of drought are becoming more frequent.
Moreover, the fierce competition among the countries of the region over the allocation of water resources offers another explanation.
As Middle East Eye notes, “Turkey’s construction of the gigantic Ataturk Dam at the source of the Euphrates and Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River is reprehensible because it contributes to limiting the flow of water in two major rivers in the region and is drying up the land in the far south of Iraq.”
Iraq has also undertaken the construction of many dams in recent years, as has neighboring Iran, without much concern for resource management.
According to some experts, the successive wars in Iraq could also be an aggravating factor. Indeed, during an armed conflict, urban destruction leaves the land bare, favoring the appearance of storms. In addition, the displacement of the population, which led to the abandonment of cultivated lands.
For example, China and Senegal
To combat sandstorms and their negative effects on health and the economy, preventive efforts have been made in recent years with the establishment of monitoring systems. Thus, in 2014, the first regional forecasting center for North Africa and the Middle East was opened in Barcelona.
In an effort to mitigate the effects of these disasters caused by desertification, sustainable land management must become a priority issue according to the World Bank.
After the series of sandstorms, the Iraqi Ministry of Environment also referred to the “establishment of forests that serve as windbreaks.” The country could follow the lead of China or Senegal, two countries that seek to reduce the frequency and intensity of sandstorms through intensive reforestation campaigns.
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For its part, Beijing began planting trees more than forty years ago. By 2050, authorities plan to plant 100 billion trees to combat the advance of the Gobi Desert. In other words, time is running out for Iraq and for all the countries of the Middle East.