We awoke today to an ochre-coloured sky – and a thick blanket of dust covered the roads and buildings with an orange film in Baghdad, Iraq. Since the beginning of April 2022, Iraq has been hit by a series of severe dust storms. This is the eighth dust storm since mid-April to hit Iraq.
A fierce dust storm has yet again engulfed an already climate-stressed Iraq and has sent at least 4,000 people to the hospital with breathing problems, as per some local news media. Earlier this month, the most recent sandstorm led to the death of one person with another 5,000 hospitalized.
The thick cloud of dust which has blanketed the Iraqi capital of Baghdad has led to the closure of airports, schools, and many public offices across the country. But the banks are open and working normally. We had to brave through the blanket of dust to our offices. Visibility was low and drivers kept car headlights on to see the road.
The sandstorm drastically reduced visibility to just 300 metres at Baghdad airport, prompting authorities to close airspace and halt flights, state-run INA news agency reported.
Dust storms in Iraq are most common in late spring and summer, provoked by seasonal winds such as the “shamal” that blows in from the northwest. Researchers suggested that La Nina conditions in the equatorial Pacific can lead to an earlier onset of shamal winds. Recent observations suggest that La Nina may be persisting into a third consecutive year.
Dust storms are common in Iraq, but some experts believe they are becoming more frequent due to climate change. The storms are expected to become more frequent due to drought, desertification and declining rainfall.
Sandstorms know no borders. They threaten to wreak havoc on a region that’s vital to the global economy. Home to three strategic waterways and almost half the world’s known oil reserves, the Middle East is crucial to global trade and energy supply. A glimpse of the destructive power of the storms was seen in March 2021, when the Suez Canal was blocked for six days by a ship that was blown off course by a sandstorm, holding up almost $60 billion in trade. Twelve percent of global trade passes through that chokepoint.
Dust deposition has wide-ranging health impacts, such as causing and aggravating asthma, bronchitis, respiratory diseases, and infections and lung cancer. Populations far from the source regions are exposed to a wide range of air quality related health problems when long-range atmospheric transport carries dust.
But the storms wreak their greatest havoc on the health of the Middle East’s people and their economies. According to the World Bank, the phenomenon costs the region’s economy USD 13 billion a year. The effects of climate change will only intensify these problems. Temperatures in the Middle East are rising twice as fast as the global average and climate models predict a decrease in precipitation over some key parts of the region.
Globally, the welfare losses from dust are approximately 3.6 trillion USD, where costs are about 150 billion USD and over 2.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on average in MENA. Costs range from ruined agricultural crops and damaged machinery to the closure of ports and airports and hours spent cleaning up roads and other infrastructure. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 million people die from poor air quality every year, which is at least partly attributed to dust.
Experts are warning that the phenomenon is only getting worse. It’s driven partly by climate change that’s making the region’s landscapes hotter and drier, and warping weather patterns to create more intense storms.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has ranked Iraq as the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change. In recent years, it has increasingly witnessed extreme heatwaves with temperatures reaching above 50°C. Iraq’s mean annual temperature also is predicted to increase by two degrees Celsius by 2050, while the mean annual rainfall is projected to decrease by 9 percent (World Bank Group).
As much as 31 percent of Iraq’s surface is desert. Traditionally known as “the land between two rivers” or Mesopotamia, lush and fertile, Iraq is increasingly experiencing extreme climate events, compounding environmental fragility and water scarcity. Water flows from the Tigris and Euphrates have diminished due to upriver damming in Turkey and Iran. The river basin has seen the second lowest rainfall in 40 years, with effects being felt across the region.
Years of inappropriate farming practices and mismanagement of water resources have exacerbated the effects of an already dry climate and contributed to increasing rates of desertification.
According to The World Bank, northern Iraq — between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers — has the highest density of dust sources in the Middle East. The environment ministry of Iraqi Government has warned that over the next two decades, Iraq could endure an average of 272 days of sandstorms per year, rising to above 300 by 2050.
Considered one of the Arab region’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, Iraq faces a unique set of environmental challenges. The impacts of changing weather patterns have already made themselves felt in recent years, with a higher frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and rising environmental degradation throughout the country.