Climate change in the MENA region sees intensification of dust storms

06 June, 2024

Climate change is changing dust storms — a natural phenomenon in the Middle East — into a more common and broad hazard to health and economics throughout the area, a new study reveals.

The study claims that while other human activities are also partly to blame, global warming is the main reason for the rise in dust levels in several Middle Eastern regions.

In a recently published paper in the journal Science of the Total Environment, the authors analysed the distribution of aerosolized dust, pinpointing where and when patterns in precipitation and evaporation have changed course for the worse.

"There has been an alarming increase in dust levels in the Middle East region over the past four decades"

Threatened areas

Zahra Kalantari, Associate Professor at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and the first author of the paper told The New Arab that there has been an alarming increase in dust levels in the Middle East region over the past four decades (1980-2020), posing threats to air quality, human health, and ecological stability.

According to Kalantari, central to south-eastern Iraq (near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), southwest Iran, central and southwest Saudi Arabia, Yemen, eastern Syria, and the Nile River region experienced the most significant increases in dust levels during the study period.

The Tigris and Euphrates River basins are identified as significant sources of dust in the region, and the situation is worsening in these areas.

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Mohamed Abdel Ghany, Researcher of atmospheric sciences at the University of Birmingham in the UK, explains that the region is witnessing the worst rates of air pollution in the world, as concentrations of fine air pollutant particles with a diameter of about 2.5 micrometres have become more common in the countries of the region.

Health and Economic losses

Dust storms in the MENA region pose significant risks to the economy and human health including respiratory problems and aggravation of existing conditions like asthma and bronchitis due to inhalation of fine dust particles and increased risk of eye infections and skin irritations.

“It also damages crops, leading to reduced yields and economic losses for farmers, and causes damage to infrastructure, buildings, and machinery due to the abrasive nature of dust particles,” says Kalantari.

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Abdel Ghany told The New Arab that “Rapid urbanisation, increasing population, and the razing of agricultural lands as well as the trend toward industrialisation, all of these factors are likely to contribute to the exacerbation of the problem of air pollution in the region, with consequent harmful health effects.”

Another study published in June 2022 in the journal Nature Sustainability indicates the role of human activity as one of the most important causes of pollution.

The most dangerous pollutants monitored by the study are dust, sulfates, nitrates, organic carbon, and black carbon.

Sources of pollution

Climate change, characterised by rising temperatures, has contributed to increased potential evapotranspiration in arid and semi-arid zones, while precipitation has decreased in many areas, exacerbating dust events, according to Kalantari.

She added that non-climatic factors such as human activities such as over-irrigation, land-use changes, water mismanagement, and conflicts have played a crucial role in intensifying dust events, particularly in areas like the Tigris-Euphrates basin and southwestern Iran.

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Ahmed Abdel Rahim, Assistant Professor of climatology at Mansoura University in Egypt, says, “Human sources of pollution, in particular, are directly linked to levels of industrialisation, economic growth, and population densities, and thus the large cities in the region are at the forefront of the most polluted areas.”

As for the natural sources of pollution, Abdel Rahim explains to The New Arab that the region has its geographical specificity, as it is the primary source of desert dust particles in the entire world, in the form of recurring dust and sand storms throughout the year.

Countering dust storms

Addressing the problem of dust storms in the Middle East requires a multi-faceted approach that considers both climate and non-climate factors, as well as regional cooperation and long-term sustainable development strategies, according to the authors.

They said that countries in the MENA region must adopt a comprehensive strategy involving environmental management and policy reforms, such as reforestation and soil conservation efforts to increase vegetation cover and reduce soil erosion, water conservation and efficient water resource management practices, including sustainable irrigation techniques and wetland restoration.

Kalantari highlighted the importance of regional cooperation and cross-border collaboration to address transboundary issues related to water resources and dust events.

"Urban planning and land-use policies that consider the risks of dust storms and encourage sustainable development, must be adopted."

For his part, Abdel Rahim stresses that confronting air pollution must include continuous monitoring of the air via a network of sensors to build a detailed picture of air pollution changes and track progress, invest in clean energy, reduce emissions from the transport sector, improve the provision of public transport and adopting higher emission standards for imported fuel and vehicles.

Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor at Daily News Egypt. His work has appeared in Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other prominent regional and international media outlets

Follow him on X: @MOHAMMED2SAID