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Sand and dust storms have become more unpredictable and dangerous

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has issued a warning about the escalating frequency of sand and dust storms (SDS) across various regions of the world, linking at least a quarter of these events to human activities. 

The amount of sand and dust entering the atmosphere each year is staggering. It is estimated to be around two billion tons, equivalent to the weight of 350 Great Pyramids of Giza. 

This increase in desert dust, which has doubled in some areas over the last century, significantly impacts various aspects of the environment, climate, health, agriculture, livelihoods, and socioeconomic well-being.

Under-recognized issue

The severity of this under-recognized environmental issue was highlighted during a five-day meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, focusing on the global progress in implementing the Convention, which originated at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro alongside conventions on climate change and biodiversity.

“The sight of rolling dark clouds of sand and dust engulfing everything in their path and turning day into night is one of nature’s most intimidating spectacles,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, UNCCD’s executive secretary.

“It is a costly phenomenon that wreaks havoc everywhere from Northern and Central Asia to sub-Saharan Africa.”

“Sand and dust storms present a formidable challenge to achieving sustainable development. However, just as sand and dust storms are exacerbated by human activities, they can also be reduced through human actions.”

Unpredictable and hazardous storms

The experts point out that poor land and water management, coupled with droughts and climate change, have intensified sand and dust storms, making them unpredictable and hazardous. 

Feras Ziadat, technical officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and chair of the UN Coalition on Combating Sand and Dust Storms, elaborated on the far-reaching effects of sand and dust storms. 

Far-reaching impacts

“Sand and dust storms have become increasingly frequent and severe having substantial transboundary impacts, affecting various aspects of the environment, climate, health, agriculture, livelihoods and the socioeconomic well-being of individuals. The accumulation of impacts from sand and dust storms can be significant,” said Ziadat.

“In source areas, they damage crops, affect livestock, and strip topsoil. In depositional areas atmospheric dust, especially in combination with local industrial pollution, can cause or worsen human health problems such as respiratory diseases.” 

“Communications, power generation, transportation, and supply chains can also be disrupted by low visibility and dust-induced mechanical failures. The United Nations Coalition on Combating Sand and Dust Storms, chaired by FAO, was created in 2019 to lead global efforts to address SDS.”

Significant burden

Sand and dust storms are known by various local names like sirocco, haboob, yellow dust, and harmattan, originating typically in drylands and sub-humid areas with sparse vegetation. They can also occur in agricultural and humid regions under specific conditions and often have transboundary impacts. 

These storms impose significant economic burdens, as seen in the oil sector in Kuwait and during a single event in Australia in 2009, with damages running into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Major sources

The major global dust sources are found across North Africa, the Middle East, East Asia, Australia, South America, and Southern Africa. The dried-up Aral Sea alone emits over 100 million tons of dust and salts annually, with far-reaching health and economic impacts. 

While these storms can provide some benefits like nutrient deposition on land and water bodies, these are overwhelmingly outweighed by their harmful effects.

Long-term impacts

Despite the high recognition of sand and dust storms as a disaster risk in some regions, it is less prominent elsewhere, partly due to the lack of immediate direct human fatalities from individual events. 

However, the long-term health, economic, and environmental impacts of sand and dust storms require more extensive documentation and research, especially regarding their interaction with air pollution and health outcomes.

The UNCCD’s warning highlights the urgent need for global and regional policy responses to mitigate and and dust storms, including source mitigation, early warning systems, and monitoring, emphasizing that the solution to this growing problem lies in human action.

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