On May 5, a powerful desert storm swept through most of Iraq, with dust turning the skies orange over many major cities across the country. By the end of the following day, he had sent 4,000 people to hospital with respiratory problems.
Government offices and schools were closed, and airports in Baghdad and several other cities suspended flights for hours as a heavy sandstorm blanketed the country.
It was the fifth powerful sandstorm to engulf Iraq in a month, with storms occurring almost weekly and totaling ten by the end of May with more expected.
Sandstorms typically hit Iraq in the spring and travel across large swaths of the country, flooding the streets of major cities with sand, hampering visibility, blowing out power poles, uprooting trees and reducing air quality.
But a typical spring would only see about one to three storms per month.
This year, in addition to their frequency, their impact has also been more severe, especially in terms of health, with more victims caused by the drop in air quality generated by a wind loaded with sand and other particles. .
While sandstorms are common at this time of year in Iraq, they are now more powerful, sweeping over larger areas and occurring with unprecedented frequency.
Iraq’s environment ministry has warned that over the next two decades the country could experience an average of 272 days of sandstorms a year, rising to more than 300 by 2050.
The prospect has raised alarm bells, with many worrying about the impacts of sandstorms on climate, human health and the environment in a country already haunted by multiple political, economic and security conflicts.
While sandstorms remain one of the most significant weather phenomena characterizing Iraq, the factors behind their increasing frequency and intensity appear to be more complex.
Dust storms in Iraq are known to be triggered by seasonal winds such as the “shamal”, a northwesterly wind that blows over Iraq and many other parts of the Middle East and the Gulf region.
Dusty weather occurs mainly in spring and summer, and the Shamal wind usually creates large sandstorms that affect Iraq, with most of the sand having been picked up from neighboring Jordan and Syria.
Experts blame climate change combined with water shortages for increasing desertification in the region. When the mighty winds of Shamal blow, they lift copious amounts of dust and sand from the bare, dry ground into the atmosphere.
They blame drier topsoil caused by drought and reduced vegetation, which means more dust can be picked up by the strong winds blowing across the country.
Some experts say that the major wars that have taken place on Iraqi territory over the past four decades have also played a role in soil degradation, leading to an increase in dust and sand.
The researchers also suggest that years of poor land and water management are making conditions more difficult, leading to earlier onset of sandstorms.
Areas around and between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq, which have the highest density of dust sources, are now impacting other parts of the Middle East, according to the World Bank.
Recent studies backed by satellite imagery show that sandstorms in recent years have been increasingly frequent over the desert terrain of Iraq and appear to be fueled by record rainfall, drought and desertification.
Studies indicate that Iraq has become one of the countries most vulnerable to desertification and climate change, suggesting that there is more loose soil available to be lifted into the atmosphere.
Successive Iraqi governments have failed to take the drought and its impacts seriously despite early warnings from experts that the country is in the midst of a water crisis.
Iraq’s water problems stem from record levels of rainfall, poor management of water resources and reductions in water flow into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the two upstream countries of Iran and Turkey.
For decades, experts have warned that delaying work on a national water strategy to limit the damage would make the problem more dangerous and harder to solve.
Yet successive governments and political leaders in Iraq have continued to ignore the country’s worsening desertification, despite all signs of impending doom.
Instead, they resorted to older methods of fighting sandstorms, such as planting trees in the so-called “green belts” around certain towns and trying to prevent worsening of drought and desertification.
As part of efforts to combat desertification, the Iraqi government on May 10 ordered the Ministry of Finance to allocate some $2.74 million for sand dune stabilization and reforestation assistance projects.
Iraq has employed such strategies for decades, planting eucalyptus, olive and date palms as part of plans to protect some cities from dusty winds.
But efforts have been hampered by construction delays, funding shortages and neglect, contributing to their failure and financial mismanagement.
Last week, the Iraqi Meteorological and Seismological Organization unveiled the “difficulties and challenges” facing the government’s plans to combat desertification, in particular the lack of funding and water scarcity.
On a larger scale, Iraqi governments have also failed to address water shortages caused by water cuts reaching the country from Iran and Turkey, which have reduced water supplies to a historical minimum.
While Iraqi governments have been hesitant to reach agreements with Iran and Turkey on water sharing, the two powerful neighboring countries have advanced in the construction and expansion of giant reservoirs on the two main rivers and their tributaries.
Instead of showing their resolve on the water issues with Iran and Turkey and forcing them to operate their water projects in accordance with legally binding agreements and international law, Baghdad government leaders have resorted to empty rhetoric to express their concerns without taking concrete action.
Iran has consistently rejected Iraq’s demands to join the joint agreements in place to manage surface border waters with Iraq and allow equal shares of the resources.
Turkey refused to abide by a 1920 protocol with Iraq under which it pledged not to build water projects without the consent of Iraq and Syria and a 2014 memorandum of understanding that emphasizes the need to set a water quota for Iraq and joint work to assess regional water resources.
As water scarcity in the country increases, Iraq fails to develop effective political, diplomatic and trade strategies to defend its interests and confront the aggressive reservoir management policies of Iran and Turkey and their attempts to divert water.
On the contrary, Iraq’s weak and ineffective political leadership does little to prevent the two neighboring countries from increasing their influence and strengthening their interests in Iraq or mitigating the effects of their aggressive water policies.
The two countries are Iraq’s major trading partners and generate some $25 billion annually from trade with Iraq, mostly in agricultural products that come at the expense of agriculture in Iraq.
At the same time, successive Iraqi governments have failed to modernize the country’s water supply systems, including water management and irrigation in times of scarcity.
Poor water management in Iraq, including the operation of existing dams, old methods of flood irrigation, dilapidated canal networks and the cultivation of uncontrolled crops compound the problem.
With the growing water crisis and ongoing droughts, the main factors behind sandstorms in Iraq are worsening and the country is facing a looming disaster with an existential dimension.
As the scale of the recent sandstorms has shown, they are a common problem in the region and could have a heavy effect on Iraq’s neighbors if they were to reach the point of no return in the crisis of the drought.
But the sad truth is that the region has so far failed to help Iraq resolve its political and security issues in order to create a more solid, resilient and sustainable regional security situation.
The threats this time will have serious repercussions for the whole region, making it more necessary than ever to collectively tackle the effects of climate change, drought and water scarcity.
*A version of this article appeared in the June 2, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.