Severity of Middle East sandstorms confronts Arab Gulf states with a daunting challenge

Severe dust storms can reduce visibility to less than 200 meters. (Reuters)
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Updated 29 June 2022

Severity of Middle East sandstorms confronts Arab Gulf states with a daunting challenge

  • Meteorological officials say climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of sand and dust storms
  • Regionwide afforestation projects aim to alleviate sandstorms’ negative effects on agriculture and human health

JEDDAH: For eons, large plumes of dust and sand sweeping across most of Saudi Arabia have been a natural, seasonal aspect of life. Though a common meteorological phenomenon in arid and semi-arid regions, in recent years scientists have been sounding the alarm over the adverse health and environmental effects of increasing dust storms, prompting Saudi authorities to face the challenges head-on.

The Middle East, Africa and the Arab Gulf are no strangers to sandstorms. They occur relatively close to the ground surface, but finer dust particles may be lifted miles into the atmosphere, where strong winds transport them long distances and across continents.

Saudi Arabia is a prime location for these extreme sandstorms, as it occupies almost the entire Arabian Peninsula, and is primarily desert with patches of rocky terrain in the west and central regions. The Kingdom also sits on a majority of the largest desert area in Asia, the Arabian Desert.

The vast expanse of sandy beige and red terrain stretching across the country leaves Saudi Arabia exposed to some of the harshest sandstorms arriving mainly from the north or west. These storms obscure vision, halt maritime and flight operations, close schools, and harm human health, while turning the cerulean blue skies an ominous orange.




Saudi Arabia’s position across the Arabian Peninsula makes it especially susceptible to sandstorms. (Reuters)

Last month, a transboundary sandstorm engulfed Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and the UAE, sending thousands to hospital as the air filled with fine dust particles that are linked to asthma attacks and the spread of bacteria, viruses, toxins and more. Depending on the weather and climate conditions, dust can remain in the atmosphere for several days and travel great distances.

Some scientists say that climate change could increase sandstorm frequency and intensity. According to several studies, the Middle East witnesses one of three types of sandstorms approximately 30 percent of the year.

A reduction of visibility defines the sandstorms; blowing dust reduces visibility to a few feet for brief intervals, and horizontal visibility is less than 11 km. For dust storms, horizontal visibility is less than 1,000 meters, and for severe dust storms is less than 200 meters.

A 2019 study analyzed the Kingdom’s dust-storm occurrences by studying figure analysis from 27 observation stations provided by the Presidency of Meteorology and Environment, using data on spatial and temporal distribution of atmospheric dust between 2000-2016. The study noted a significant increase in occurrences, especially in the Eastern Province, with a clear seasonality in the incidence of dust and sand storms.

STORM CATEGORIES

• Blowing dust: Horizontal visibility is less than 11 km.

• Dust storm: Horizontal visibility is less than 1,000 meters.

• Severe dust storm: Horizontal visibility is less than 200 meters.

According to Hussain Al-Qahtani, Saudi Arabian National Center for Meteorology spokesman, the notable increase of sand and dust storms in the Eastern Province is due to its proximity and exposure to the northern winds that commonly hit the Kingdom.

“For over 40 years, the NCM has documented and monitored weather patterns and climate conditions in the Kingdom,” he told Arab News.

“The incidence and intensity of dust storms vary year by year and the World Meteorological Organization declared that the world is going through a turbulent time of extreme climate change. Dust storms with winds up to 45 km per hour for several days are a common phenomenon in the area, and are a result of this extreme global climate.”

When heavy torrential rains in late 2009 and early 2010 inundated Jeddah on Saudi Arabia’s western coast and caused mass floods, civil defense officials declared them to be the worst in over 25 years, prompting the launch by the NCM of a national weather-warning system connecting all relevant governing bodies.

The NCM now uses this system to warn of the possibility and intensity of incoming sandstorms. Green indicates that no severe weather is expected; yellow is “be aware,” amber “be prepared,” and red is “take action.”

Three key factors are responsible for the generation of sand and dust storms: Strong wind, lack of vegetation, and absence of rainfall, making the Kingdom the perfect environment for cross-border dust storms.

Their increasing frequency has taken its toll on the Middle East’s agricultural sector. Sandstorms reduce crop yields by burying seedlings under sand deposits, destroying plant tissue, and reducing the plant’s ability to carry out photosynthesis, which delays plant development.




Sand and dust storms have immediate threats to human health, especially for the young and the elderly, causing respiratory and skin problems. (Reuters)

Some of the most immediate and obvious effects of sand and dust storms are related to human health. Dr. Lamia Al-Ibrahim of the Saudi Red Crescent Authority says human exposure to dust and sandstorms poses a danger to overall health, especially for people with respiratory problems, including asthma, allergies and COPD, and can cause skin and eye irritation.

“Depending on the level of exposure, sand and dust storms in the Kingdom differ from one region to the next. Dust storms could worsen he health of individuals whether they have allergies or not,” she told Arab News. “With simple lifestyle changes, the effects can be minimized, but not prevented.”

Al-Ibrahim says exposure to dust and sand can exacerbate allergies, adding that several health, safety and environmental control strategies can be implemented to cushion communities from the negative impact of storms.

“Precautionary measures and medications such as antihistamines ahead of time can decrease the severity of infections. Though the best mechanism is to stay home, those who need to leave their homes should don face masks and wear glasses. Dust storms impact outdoor and indoor air quality and can trigger breathing problems and more due to one particle — silica,” she said.

FASTFACT

• Aeolian processes: Wind-driven emission, transportation and deposition of sand and dust by wind are termed after the Greek god Aeolus, the keeper of winds.

Most desert dust in the region is composed primarily of silica, exposure to which is a risk factor for several illnesses.

Wearing masks and glasses and staying inside are temporary solutions, leaving authorities to seek out more permanent and far-reaching ways to solve the dust problem. In terms of environmental strategies, afforestation has become a significant player when it comes to fighting issues faced as a result of climate change.

The Saudi Green Initiative, launched last March, aims to rehabilitate 40 million hectares of land over the coming decades, with 24 initiatives launched to plant 10 billion trees. The afforestation plan can improve air quality, reduce sandstorms, combat desertification, and lower temperatures in adjacent areas.

Similarly, the Middle East Green Initiative, the regional alliance and pact on climate change, has similar ambitious goals, aiming to plant 50 billion trees (10 billion in the Kingdom) across the Middle East and restore 200 million hectares of degraded land.




Sandstorms across the Middle East have delayed flights, closed schools and hospitalised thousands. (AFP)

Al-Ibrahim cautions that although afforestation effectively mitigates sand and dust storms, it is essential to know which trees to plant, as some could have adverse effects on human health.

“Some tree pollen can cause severe allergies. I was invited to participate in the Green Riyadh Project launch as a member of several environmental awareness groups and raised the issue of these trees, and a committee was established to specify the types of trees, plants and shrubs best suited for the area,” she told Arab News.

The Royal Commission of Riyadh has issued a plant guide book for the city which lists approximately 300 types of plants, shrubs and trees that are set to be planted.

“NCM’s research and studies contribute to providing data to relevant entities that need to understand how to face the challenges that arise from sand and dust storms, decrease the level of threats and work on solutions such as afforestation initiatives, taking preventive measures, or even increasing the accuracy of the information for the health and safety of citizens,” said Al-Qahtani.


Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

Updated 13 August 2022

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

CAIRO: A vehicle accident involving an overturned microbus in southern Egypt killed at least nine people and injured eight, authorities said Saturday.
The crash took place Friday when the passenger vehicle overturned following a tire blowout on a highway in Minya province 273 kilometers (170 miles) south of the capital Cairo, provincial authorities said in a statement.
The microbus, a sort of mass transit minivan, was transporting people from Sohag province to Cairo, the statement said.
Ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to hospitals in Minya, the statement added.
Deadly traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes and collisions are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
Earlier this month, a microbus collided with a truck in Sohag, killing at least 17 people and injuring four others. In July, a passenger bus slammed into a parked trailer truck in Minya, leaving 23 dead and a least 30 wounded.

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Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

Updated 12 August 2022

Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

  • Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labour union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a "social contract" to tackle national challenges
  • The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page

TUNIS: Tunisia’s government and both its main labor and commerce unions agreed on Friday to start talks on Monday over economic reforms required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue program.
State news agency TAP reported that Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labor union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a “social contract” to tackle national challenges, citing a government statement.
The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page.
The labor union, which represents a vast syndicate of workers, has been a staunch critic of IMF economic reforms proposed by the government, including subsidy cuts, a public sector wage freeze and the restructuring of state-owned companies.
It previously said, such reforms would increase the suffering of Tunisians and lead to an imminent social implosion.
Tunisia is seeking $4 billion in IMF support amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, though diplomat sources told Reuters any IMF program approved would be unlikely to reach that level.
The IMF wants the UGTT, a powerful union that has a million members and has previously paralyzed parts of the economy in protest, to formally agree to government reforms.
Efforts to secure the IMF bailout have been complicated by Tunisia’s political upheavals since President Kais Saied seized most powers a year ago, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
Last month, he pushed through a new constitution formalising many of the expanded powers he has assumed in a referendum. Official figures showed that 31 percent of Tunisians took part, but opposition groups have rejected the figure, calling it inflated.


Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

Updated 12 August 2022

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

  • It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border
  • The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday

BEIRUT: Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region transferred to the Iraqi government more than 600 relatives of Daesh group members who were detained at the notorious Al-Hol camp, a monitor said Friday.
It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border.
In the latest transfer, around “620 people, relatives of Daesh members, left Al-Hol,” coordinated between the camp administration and the Iraqi government, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday, an official in the Kurdish administration told AFP.
Thousands of foreign extremists joined Daesh as fighters, often bringing their wives and children to live in the “caliphate” declared by the group across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed by a US-led coalition dislodged the militants from their last scrap of territory in Syria in 2019.
Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on countries to repatriate their citizens from crowded displaced camps, of which Al-Hol is Syria’s largest.
More than 100 people, including many women, were murdered in Al-Hol over an 18-month period, the UN said in June, calling for camp residents to be returned home.
But nations have mostly received them only sporadically, fearing security threats and a domestic political backlash.
The first repatriation of Iraqi families from Al-Hol, involving around 300 people, took place in May last year.
Iraq should repatriate 500 families in total from Al-Hol this year, the official Iraqi New Agency announced on Wednesday.
In addition to the returned family members, the Iraqi government also received this week about 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters and leaders who were detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces, according to the Observatory.
The SDF spearheaded the fight against Daesh in Syria with the support of the US-led coalition.
In early June, Iraq repatriated another 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters who were detained by Kurdish forces. They were among 3,500 Iraqis held in Syrian Kurdish prisons, a senior military official said at the time.
In April, a senior Iraqi security official said the Al-Hol camp is a security threat and should be dismantled.
It houses around 55,000 people, the UN reported in June.


Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

Updated 12 August 2022

Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

  • Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July
  • Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday

BAGHDAD: Thousands of followers of Moqtada Al-Sadr held a mass prayer outside parliament in Baghdad on Friday in a show of support for the powerful Shiite cleric who has called for Iraq’s judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of next week.
Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July after a 10-month political stalemate that followed elections last October. Sadr was the biggest winner but failed to form a government free of Iranian-backed parties.
He withdrew his lawmakers from parliament and is now preventing the chamber from electing a new government and is demanding early elections.
On Wednesday he said the judiciary must dissolve parliament by the end of next week. If not “the revolutionaries will take another stand,” he said without elaborating.
Outside parliament on Friday thousands of Sadr supporters gathered for prayer. Most were dressed in black to mark the Muslim month of Muharram and some wore white capes symbolizing burial shrouds and their willingness to die.
“You will not break Iraq as long as Sadr is here,” an imam told the crowd from a big red stage set up outside parliament. “There is no going back from this revolution ... and the people will not give up their demands.”
In the intense summer heat, men picked their way through the worshippers and sprayed them with cold water. Some carried portraits of Sadr and his father, also a prominent cleric, as well as Iraqi flags.
“We have revolted and there is no going back,” said Mohammed Elwan, 40, carrying a portrait of Sadr.
Hamid Hussain, a father of five, said: “I am here to call for an early election and make sure that all the corrupt faces are excluded from the upcoming elections...I became unemployed because of the corrupt parties.”
Sadr’s opponents also accuse him of corruption. They say his loyalists have run some of Iraq’s most corrupt and dysfunctional government departments.
Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday, the latest in a series of protest and counter-protest in recent days which have led to fears of unrest.
Sadr counts millions of Iraqis among his followers and has shown he can still stir up gatherings by hundreds of thousands of supporters, mostly working-class Shiite Muslims, if he needs to exert political pressure.
His father Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr was killed more than 20 years ago for his outspoken opposition Saddam Hussein. When Saddam was topped in a US-led invasion in 2003 Sadr began an insurgency against US troops.
His new foes, however, are fellow Shiite leaders and parties mostly aligned with Iran, as Sadr has positioned himself as a nationalist who rejects foreign interference. Those groups, like Sadr, are backed by heavily armed militias, but do not hold the same sway as he does over masses of fanatical followers.


Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call

Updated 12 August 2022

Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call

  • Comments sparked calls for protests in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces
  • Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria

SYRIA: Protests broke out in Syria’s rebel-held north on Friday over a call from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu for reconciliation between the Syrian government and opposition.
“We have to somehow get the opposition and the regime to reconcile in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace, we always say this,” Cavusoglu said Thursday, in remarks to diplomats.
The comments have sparked calls for protests after Friday weekly prayers in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces and their supporters, including in Al-Bab, Afrin and Jarablus.
Similar calls were made in Idlib, controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and other rebel groups, to gather at border crossings with Turkey.
Small protests already began overnight in some areas, including Al-Bab, where dozens gathered holding opposition slogans and chanting against Turkey.
Some demonstrators burned a Turkish flag, while others took down Turkey’s colors hung up around the city, an AFP photographer said.
Dozens of others gathered at the Bab Al-Salama crossing to Turkey, many shouting “death rather than indignity.”
Turkey’s top diplomat also revealed that he had held a short meeting in Belgrade in October with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Al-Meqdad, adding that communication had resumed between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.
But he denied direct talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad, despite long-standing calls from Russia for such dialogue.
Cavusoglu added that Turkey would continue its fight against “terrorism” in Syria, following warnings from Ankara since May that it could launch new strikes on Kurdish-held areas in north and northeast Syria.
Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria. Most have targeted Kurdish militants that Turkey links to a group waging a decades-long insurgency against it.
Cavusoglu’s comments have sparked widespread anger among the opposition, with renowned figure George Sabra writing on Facebook: “If Cavusoglu is concerned with reconciling with the Syrian regime, that is his business. As for the Syrians, they have a different cause for which they have paid and continue to pay the dearest price.”
About half a million people have died during Syria’s 11-year conflict, which has destroyed large swathes of the country and displaced millions of people.