A huge grey-orange wall rolls towards Kuwait City. Skyscrapers, streets and cars quickly disappear behind a veil, the sun darkens, the sky turns red. This has been shown by videos from the Persian Gulf in the past few days.
The Middle East has been hit by an unusually large number of sandstorms in recent weeks – Iraq alone is currently recording almost one storm per week. So far there have been about two storms in the whole year. Scientists blame climate change and mismanagement for the plague.
Sandstorms are not uncommon in the Middle East during spring and summer, but they are now more frequent. A huge area is affected from Erbil in northern Iraq to the Saudi capital Riyadh about 1,300 kilometers further south. The storms reach speeds of 100 kilometers per hour and spread fine dust particles that disable aircraft engines and can be life-threatening, especially for the old and sick.
In the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zor, health authorities requested additional oxygen cylinders to ventilate patients after three people suffocated during a storm. There has been at least one fatality in Iraq so far.
The storms often move on within half an hour, but they can cause billions in damage and disrupt public life. In the Iranian capital Tehran, schools have had to be closed twice in the past few weeks, and in Dubai the tallest building in the world disappeared briefly.
The 830 meter high Burj Khalifa stood behind a curtain of sand. In Iraq, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Monday sent home all state officials except for health care workers and security forces.
The Middle East is one of the areas in the world most affected by climate change. Water shortages and rising temperatures could make parts of the region uninhabitable for decades to come. Some countries are already reporting maximum temperatures of more than 50 degrees. A particularly large sandstorm that hit an area from Iraq to Cyprus in 2015 was still considered a once-in-a-century event.
And now? Nearly a dozen storms have swept across Iraq since March. Jaafar Jotheri of Iraq’s Al-Kadisiya University told the New York Times that 20 years ago there were two sandstorms a year in Iraq – this year he expects 20.
Rising temperatures and less precipitation are leading to desertification, says Yoav Yair. The scientist from Israel’s Reichman University told broadcaster France24 that agricultural land in the Middle East was becoming drier. Therefore, it is becoming easier and easier for winds to throw the sand into the air and carry it hundreds of kilometers. The rural exodus of farmers in civil war countries like Syria amplifies soil erosion because it leaves behind dry fallow land that can be blown away more easily.
In Iraq, the authorities fear that 70 percent of agricultural land could dry up. What is happening there could soon happen in other parts of the Middle East as well. Developments in Iraq should be seen as a sign for other countries, climate expert Mohammed Mahmoud from the Middle East Institute in Washington told CNN. Mahmoud considers the states on the Persian Gulf, Egypt and Libya to be particularly at risk.
Political decisions in the affected countries make things worse. Here, too, Iraq provides a deterrent example. The then dictator Saddam Hussein had large swamp areas in the south of the country drained.
Authorities have also allowed groundwater levels to continue to fall in parts of the country, Iraq expert Ibrahim al-Marashi wrote in a post for the Middle East Eye news site. In neighboring Iran, government mismanagement is causing rivers and farmland to dry up in some regions. Other problems such as the destruction of forest areas and falling water levels on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are added.
Greenpeace’s Mohamed Tazrouti estimates that severe sandstorms will become commonplace in the Middle East in the coming years. The storms would not only become more frequent but also more intense, he predicts. In addition, they will spread over larger areas and wind speeds will increase.
One possible antidote to the sandstorms are trees. In recent years, China has been able to reduce the number of sandstorms there with a reforestation campaign in Inner Mongolia. Following the Chinese example, Kuwait had hundreds of thousands of trees planted, which are supplied with a sustainable irrigation system.
The Iraqi government also sees trees as an effective weapon against the storms. But the change of direction comes late, the storms continue. Saudi Arabia is expecting a sandstorm that will reduce visibility on the streets of the capital, Riyadh, to zero.