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A Regional Crisis, Demanding Regional Solutions
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A Regional Crisis, Demanding Regional Solutions

Hardly does a day pass by without a mention in the media of the dust and smog problem suffocating Khuzestan Province and its neighboring regions. To say the least, the dust and particle storms battering the western and southwestern provinces were not created overnight; they have been over a decade in the making. By the same token, solutions will obviously take time that could be counted in years, may be decades. From natural phenomena to human activities, numerous factors have played key roles in turning dust storms into an environmental catastrophe which has had a crippling effect on the lives of the inhabitants of afflicted regions.

  Contributing Factors
According to official statements, only 5% of dust particles found in storms ravaging Iran originate from domestic sources; in other words, dust storms born beyond the borders are major contributors to Iran's past and present predicament. Studies indicate that Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, as well as North African deserts are significant sources of dust storms affecting and afflicting Iran.
Iran’s dust storms appear to be growing more frequent and severe, especially in the past few years. Experts attribute the increase to regional droughts and the drying up of wetlands – specifically the draining of Hoor al-Azim Wetland due to outdated oil-extraction procedures as well as dam building by Turkey. Since 1975, Turkey’s extensive dam and hydropower construction has reportedly reduced water flows into Iraq and Syria by approximately 80 and 40 percent respectively, according to independent Australian research institute Future Directions International.
Furthermore, the desiccation of the Hamoons – transboundary wetlands between Iran and Afghanistan – due to Afghanistan not observing the wetlands' water rights has exacerbated the problem. Poor management, unsustainable farming, systemic decline in rainfall, and destruction of vegetation are other contributing factors.

  Repercussions
Dust storms pose serious health risks. If inhaled, fine dust particles can get lodged in the lungs, causing infections, cardiovascular problems, and respiratory complications. Dust storms reached their peak two weeks ago, sweeping across oil-rich Khuzestan Province and forcing local authorities to shut down school, universities, and other government offices, disrupting daily life.  The situation became so dire that officials urged people to stay indoors and leave their homes only if necessary.
Aside from physical maladies, declining social health standards in Khuzestan may also inflict psychological harm. According to social psychologist Majid Safarinia, psychosomatic disorders, aggression, depression, gloom and doom are and could be consequences of the decline in living standards brought about by the relentless dust storms and the unending pollution.

  Government Measures
In recent weeks people in Khuzestan took to the social media and staged peaceful protests in the provincial capital Ahvaz to voice dismay and despair at the administration's lack of action, specifically vice president and Department of Environment (DoE) chief Masoumeh Ebtekar.
Ebtekar, who had come under fire for not visiting the storm-battered province sooner, finally made her long-awaited journey last week. During a press conference in Ahvaz, which was attended by local journalists wearing medical face masks in a symbolic gesture, Ebtekar outlined the government's plan to tackle the dust and smog crisis, but insisted that solutions would at least take a decade. A working group comprising environmentalists, academics and government officials tasked with identifying the sources of smog and working out ways to effectively curb the problem has been formed, she noted. Furthermore, ministries and organizations have also been assigned tasks to help fight the unfolding crisis; the ministry of agriculture is tasked with sand fixation, reforestation, and promotion of sustainable agriculture.
The health ministry is responsible for formulating guidelines to reduce public health risk and help prevent more serious complications, as well as equipping health centers with masks and modern medical devices. Iran's Meteorological Organization is responsible for monitoring dust concentrations and give early warning of impending dust storms.
Since the dust pollution is a transboundary issue, regional countries also are cognizant of their interdependence and have agreed to cooperate in recent years. So far, however, the agreements have yielded little. Iran and Iraq inked two accords between 2009 and 2011, one obliging the Arab country to pour biological or oil-based mulch onto dust sources, the other a jointly-funded project to cover over 3500 square miles of Iraqi desert with mulch in an effort to stabilize the sand. Neither agreement was truly fulfilled. In a renewed effort, however, Iran's first Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri signed several MOUs last week in Baghdad, one of which was on environmental issues plaguing both nations.

  The Road Ahead
It is clear that the Rouhani administration has taken the issue of dust and smog seriously, as evidenced by the government's declared intention at damage control both in and outside the country. To check and reverse the dangerous health crises in a meaningful way, it is essential that Iran and other regional states rise to the occasion without further delay. The current crisis visiting the region in more ways than one took over ten years to become the catastrophe that it is today. Given the scale and scope of the disaster, it would be naive to expect quick fixes. To deal effectively with the quandary a lot of patience, foresight and understanding is required.   

 

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