Climate change exacerbating severe dust storms in Iraq, experts say

Government officials urged to be proactive in devising strategies to prevent further escalation

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Climate change is one of the main factors behind a flurry of dust storms hitting Iraq, government officials and experts have said.

Over the past few weeks Iraq has been engulfed by sandstorms leaving thousands in hospital and forcing flights to remain grounded while colouring its skies blood red.

Climate change driving dust storms

Climate change in Iraq is “making summers hotter, drier and longer, draining water resources faster, leading to desertification which is turning more green areas into arid ones that lose soil and dust escapes from,” Sajad Jiyad, a fellow with the Century Foundation, told The National.

Iraq has suffered from great loss of agricultural and rural land and the United Nations has found up to 31 per cent of Iraq's surface is desert. More could become desert if policies aren't enacted – the UN says 39 per cent of Iraq is affected by desertification, with a further 54 per cent in jeopardy.

Many of the areas have been "converted into housing due to increasing population demands, resulting in less vegetation and natural barriers to sandstorms, and also more pressure on water resources”, Mr Jiyad said.

In addition “drought, loss of rivers and lakes, and the dams installed have dried up large areas of land”.

In further escalation, Iraq’s Environment Ministry said on Wednesday that Baghdad has been “exposed to sixty tonnes of dust and dirt which is seen as the largest global pollution in the region".

Damage to Iraqi land

Experts have warned for years that increased dust storms will negatively damage the country’s economy, agriculture, citizen’s livelihoods and general industry.

The government has said the country is set to experience 300 dusty days in the next year.

This will “endanger health, bring transport to a standstill, damage the economy and have negative effects on agriculture, industries, maintenance of buildings, and power generation and distribution,” Mr Jiyad said.

“It is likely there will be a large generation of young children with respiratory issues as they are forced to live with extremely bad air quality."

The UN envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, on Tuesday said the current wave of dust storms has exceeded those of recent years.

"Ever since [February], Iraq has been battered by intense dust and sandstorms that obscure the sky, send people running for shelter, even resulting in sickness and death," she told the UN Security Council.

The sandstorms are expected to become more frequent, she said, and "continued inaction ... comes at enormous costs".

'Government action needed'

Why does Iraq keep getting clouded under severe dust storms?

Why does Iraq keep getting clouded under severe dust storms?

For Azzam Alwash, head of the non-governmental group Nature Iraq, climate change is making weather patterns more extreme and frequent in the country but officials in Baghdad have failed to act quickly enough to prevent it.

“What is also accompanied with it is the fact that Iraq has been losing its arable land to desertification, to salinisation. My frustration with Iraq officials – they now talk about climate change as the reason for all of this,” Mr Alwash told NPR.

“Well, I cannot deny that climate change is part of it but it has become an easy excuse for not acting. In reality, they could have worked with this 20 years, 30 years ago and prevented this thing from getting more severe."

Government officials should have spent the past two decades "modernising irrigation, reducing the loss of agricultural land to salinisation, reducing the desertification, stopping ... or limiting the pastoral activities to certain areas".

Officials are used to reacting but not being proactive, Mr Alwash said.

Mr Jiyad, meanwhile, said the government in Baghdad must "increase the amount of green areas and natural habitats, reducing overconsumption of water resources" and introduce "incentives to encourage protection of rural areas".

Officials have planned out "strategies but the politicians lack the political will to see them through", he said.

The country is rich in oil and is known in Arabic as the land of the two rivers, in reference to the legendary Tigris and Euphrates.

However, the frequency of dust and sandstorms has intensified in recent years as it has been linked with the overuse of river water, more dams, overgrazing and deforestation.

Updated: May 20, 2022, 10:24 AM