Omnipresent Dilemma

Omnipresent Dilemma
Omnipresent Dilemma

Reemergence of dust storms in recent weeks is a cruel reminder of our urgent need to come up with a workable solution to this ongoing problem. Other Middle Eastern countries such as Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and the UAE have also been engulfed by such storms.

While coming under increasing pressure, Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice-president and Department of Environment (DoE) chief states the phenomenon is not an overnight product; it has been years in the making, no thanks to climate change and human negligence. Deforestation and desertification happened through mismanagement of resources and building dams over the rivers that suffocated lakes and wetlands.

Over the past years Iran’s water resources such as in Lake Urmia, Hamun, Gavkhuni, Arjan, Parishan, Ajigol, and Almagol have been dwindling.

“This situation has put the mineral as well as the organic particles of lakebeds exposed to the air, prone to even a slight breeze,” says Dr Esmaeil Kahrom, senior advisor to the head of DoE, and a university lecturer.

  Not Always Bad

He says, “Dusts are not a new phenomenon, nor are they always threatening. They have always been there in every part of the world and can actually bear great environmental benefits. The Namib Desert - a coastal desert in southern Africa – for example, sends billions of tons of dust into the Atlantic Ocean every year, to act as a fertilizer for the ocean life, nourishing algae, planktons and the like.”

The dust particles can also produce rain if they are of an adequate size (between 0.5 to 50 microns) and reach high enough altitudes, i.e. 3 kilometers above the atmosphere.

“Water vapor molecules latch onto dust particles to become heavy enough to fall to the ground,” he explains.

Suspended dust particles become problematic, however, when there are not enough forests, wetlands, and rivers to absorb them. Studies show every hectare of jungle absorbs 7.5 tons of dust every year.  This is while wetlands are calculated to have 10 and 200 times more economic value than jungles and farm lands, respectively. Wetlands’ functions include moderating the temperature, and helping soil retain its moisture, among other, Kahrom says.

In Khuzestan Province, which has lost more than 50% of its three wetlands, namely Hoor al-Azim (shared with Iraq), Shadegan, and Bam Dej, the temperature in summer reacher to above 50 degrees Celsius at times, a phenomenon less observed until three decades ago. As a result, the recent strong winds colliding with the region’s dry lands were easily transformed into dust storms.

  International Cooperation

Nevertheless, many experts and officials believe – albeit rather controversially – that Iran is not the main source of the dust storms, Khodakaram Jalali, deputy minister and head of the Forest, Range and Watershed Management Organization (FRWO) claims. “Only less than 10% of the dust is generated from sources inside the country.”

Despite being skeptical about the figure, Kahrom attests that satellite images indicate most of the dust comes from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey. “One of the major contributors to the dust problem is Turkey’s construction of nearly 10 dams over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, stifling the rivers and, consequently, the biggest wetland of the Middle East, Hoor al-Azim,” he says.

As a result, the only effective solution to the endless dust storms lies in international cooperation. Experts say the issue may take 10 years to be completely tackled by three levels of short-term, medium-term, and long-term solutions which the government has proposed.

Kahrom asserts the immediate initiatives are pouring mulch - an oil derivative whose main function is the conservation of soil moisture and moderation of soil temperature - over dry lands, seeding the clouds, and planting trees. The long-term measures would be stopping dam construction, restoring lakes and wetlands, imposing a ban on logging, and preventing overgrazing of pastures.