On 5 May, a powerful desert storm passed through most of Iraq, with the dust turning skies orange over many of the country’s major cities. By the end of the following day, it had sent 4,000 people to hospital with breathing problems.
Government offices and schools were shut, and airports in Baghdad and several other cities suspended flights for hours as a thick sandstorm blanketed the country.
It was the fifth powerful sandstorm to engulf Iraq within a month, with the storms occurring on an almost weekly basis and totalling ten by the end of May with more expected.
Sandstorms usually hit Iraq in the spring and scour large swathes of the country, flood the streets of major cities with sand, hamper visibility, blow down electricity poles, uproot trees, and reduce air quality.
But a typical spring would see only about one to three storms per month.
This year, as well as their frequency, their impact has also been more severe, particularly in health terms, with more casualties caused by plummeting air quality generated by wind thick with sand and other particles.
While sandstorms are common at this time of year in Iraq, they are now more powerful, sweep across larger areas, and occur with unprecedented frequency.
Iraq’s Environment Ministry has warned that over the next two decades the country could endure an average of 272 days of sandstorms a year, rising to above 300 by 2050.
The prospect has raised the alarm, with many concerned about the impacts of the sandstorms on the 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 important weather phenomena characterising Iraq, the factors behind their increasing frequency and intensity seem 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 Gulf region.
Dusty weather occurs mostly in the spring and summer, and the shamal wind typically creates large sandstorms that impact Iraq, with most of the sand having been picked up from neighbouring Jordan and Syria.
Experts blame climate change combined with shortages of water for increasing desertification in the region. When the powerful shamal winds blow, they lift abundant dust and sand from bare, dry soil into the atmosphere.
They blame drier topsoil caused by drought and the reduction of vegetation, which means that more dust can be picked up by the strong winds that blow over the country.
Some experts say the major wars that were fought on Iraqi territory over the last four decades have also played a part in the degradation of the soil, leading to an increase in loose dust and sand.
Researchers are also suggesting that years of poor land and water management are making conditions more severe, leading to an earlier onset of the sandstorms.
According to the World Bank, the 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.
Recent studies supported by satellite images show that sandstorms in recent years are becoming more common in Iraq’s desert terrain and that they appear to be fuelled by record low rainfall, drought, and desertification.
The 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 drought and its impacts seriously despite early warnings by experts that the country is in the midst of a water crisis.
Iraq’s water problems stem from record low levels of rainfall, poor water-resource management, 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 the signs of a looming catastrophe.
Instead, they have resorted to older methods to fight sandstorms, such as planting trees in so-called “green belts” around some cities and trying to prevent worsening drought and desertification.
As part of efforts to fight desertification, the Iraqi government on 10 May directed the Finance Ministry to allocate some $2.74 million to projects to stabilise sand dunes and assist forestation.
Iraq has been resorting to such strategies for decades, planting eucalyptus and olive trees and date palms as part of plans to shield some cities against dusty winds.
But the efforts have been hampered by construction delays, funding shortages, and neglect, contributing to their failure and financial mismanagement.
Last week, the Iraqi Meteorological and Seismology Organisation unveiled the “difficulties and challenges” facing government plans to fight desertification, particularly the lack of finance and shortages of water.
On a broader scale, Iraq’s governments have also failed to address the water shortages caused by cuts in the water reaching the country from Iran and Turkey, which have reduced water supplies to an historic minimum.
As Iraqi governments have faltered in reaching agreements with Iran and Turkey on water-sharing, the two powerful neighbouring countries have forged ahead in building and expanding giant reservoirs on the two main rivers and their tributaries.
Instead of showing resolve on the water problems with Iran and Turkey and compelling them to operate their water projects in line with legally binding agreements and international law, Baghdad government leaders have resorted to empty rhetoric in voicing their concerns without taking concrete steps.
Iran has consistently rejected Iraq’s requests to adhere to the joint agreements in place to manage surface border waters with Iraq and allow equal shares of the resources.
Turkey has refused to abide by a 1920 protocol with Iraq under which it agreed not to build water projects without Iraq’s and Syria’s consent and a 2014 memorandum of understanding that stresses the need to fix a water quota for Iraq and joint work to evaluate regional water resources.
As the water scarcity in the country increases, Iraq is failing to work out effective political, diplomatic, and trade strategies to defend its interests and address Iran’s and Turkey’s aggressive reservoir-management policies and their attempts at water diversion.
On the contrary, Iraq’s weak and inefficient political leadership is doing little to challenge the two neighbouring countries from increasing their influence and boosting their interests in Iraq or mitigate the effects of their aggressive water polices.
The two countries are Iraq’s major trading partners and generate some $25 billion from trade with Iraq annually, mainly in agricultural goods that come at the expense of farming in Iraq.
At the same time, successive Iraqi governments have failed to modernise the country’s water systems, including managing water and irrigation at times of shortages.
Poor water management in Iraq, including in operating existing dams, old methods of flood irrigation, rundown canal networks, and the growing of uncontrolled crops are all worsening the problem.
With the water crisis growing and the ongoing droughts, the main factors behind the sandstorms in Iraq are worsening, and the country faces a looming catastrophe with an existential dimension.
As the extent of the recent sandstorms has shown, they are a common problem in the region and could have a heavy effect on Iraq’s neighbours if left to reach the point of no return in the drought crisis.
But the sad truth is that the region has so far failed to assist Iraq in resolving its political and security problems in order to create a more solid, resilient, and sustainable regional security situation.
The threats this time will have serious repercussions on the entire region, making it more necessary than ever for it to tackle the effects of climate change, drought, and water scarcity collectively.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.