Sandstorms are a blot on the regional horizon, particularly as their intensity and frequency has grown in recent years. But what can be done to minimise or reduce their impact? On May 5, writes Mitya Underwood, experts gather in
A new United Nations task force has been set up to tackle what is arguably the biggest and most costly environmental problem in the region - sandstorms.
The issue is being taken so seriously that countries including Iran, Iraq, the UAE, Bahrain and Afghanistan have agreed to work together to mitigate the effects of the environmental phenomenon, which costs the region billions of dollars every year.
In January, the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) established a Sand and Dust Storms Project to provide a neutral platform for countries to reach a consensus about how to tackle the issue region-wide as efforts by individual countries have so far failed.
On May 5, representatives from all the GCC countries and their neighbours will convene in Abu Dhabi to discuss ways of reducing the impact of the storms, and more importantly, how much money each country is prepared to invest to do so.
Bahrain-based Iyad Abumoghli, the director and the regional representative of Unep, says countries need to "step up" if they want to reduce the damaging effects of the sand and dust storms that batter the region almost weekly.
"All countries need to step up to work on this together. There is no one country that can solve the problem, it is much wider than that.
"The first thing is to establish a network of countries to agree on solutions. But if we really want to be able to implement things, we are talking about costs of tens of millions of dollars. But it's important to remember that this is less than the cost at the moment.
"Our advantage as the United Nations is we have a convening power and we can bring all parties on the same table to discuss the issue, and we can provide reliable implementation. We are neutral and we can work with all parties; that's our advantage."
Population migration, the first Gulf War, destruction of vegetation and continual misuse of water resources have all contributed to what has become a massive financial and social drain on the whole region.
"We have been monitoring sand and dust storms globally, and in this area in the past 10 years, we have been noticing a tremendous increase in frequency, and on the impact they are having in the region," says Abumoghli.
"There has been some assessment of the economic impact and it reaches billions of dollars. There are planes grounded, which affects hotel occupancy and tourism, machines shut down because of the particles in the air, desalination plants that have been stopped.
"There's also the cost of treatment in medications and other social costs. Last month there was a sandstorm in Riyadh and 400 people were admitted to hospital."
One of the main stumbling blocks up for discussion tomorrow is the lack of sufficient research. There are a few isolated studies, but the new Unep project will be first time all the available data has been collated and studied.
"There has never been a network of scientific institutions or scientists that talk to each other and compare notes and draw the bigger picture," Abumoghli says. "We wanted to create that network and platform.
"Monitoring the reasons and hotspots and sources of the storms is important because as the UN, we base our policies on research so we needed to know exactly what the causes were. How they start, how they travel and how far they travel is important."
The research that does exist already shows that not only are sand and dust storms becoming more frequent, they are increasing in intensity and strength.
The Environment Agency Abu Dhabi revealed recently that the amounts of dust particles in the air was increasing, and that 60 to 70 per cent of it was as a result of the natural desert environment.
The levels of PM10, which are the particles in the air small enough to be inhaled and penetrate the lungs, are three times higher in the UAE than the World Health Organisation's global guideline. And it is on the rise.
Ali Al Mussallam, one of the most senior forecasters at the National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology in Abu Dhabi, agrees that the time has come for countries to set aside any political differences and work together. "The relationships do not matter when we talk about sandstorms," he says. "This is bigger than that and it is a large problem for all countries in the region.
"For us in the UAE, we know there are several sources of the sandstorms that come towards our country. They are not started here so there is little we can do as a country to stop them.
"The problem is that this is not only the GCC countries. The major sources are Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. GCC countries need to convince these countries to work and find solutions."
The sources of the sandstorms are key, and make clear the need for all the countries in the region to be involved in any efforts to mitigate their effects. The storms that hit the UAE have usually travelled across the water from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, growing in intensity as they go. These are all countries, of course, which have significantly less wealth than the GCC.
"We cannot just hand over money, there are many technical questions we need to be asking, and answering," Al Mussallam adds. "But if spending money somewhere else will help the UAE, then it is what we must be prepared to do."
The fact that human activity is mostly to blame for the increasing frequency and force of the sandstorms cannot be ignored. Communities abandoning agricultural land in search of other sources of income, the use of heavy vehicles in war zones and the misuse of water resources are all contributing factors.
The draining of the Mesopotamian marshlands in Iraq (which were estimated to be up to 20,000 square kilometres when full) has also had a huge impact.
Before they were drained, the Central, Hawizeh and Hammar Marshes were considered to make up the largest wetland ecosystem in west Asia. But between the 1950s and 2000s, they were drained to approximately 10 per cent of their original size. They have since recovered somewhat, but a large portion of the area is still dry desert.
"This desert is now a huge source of sand and dust storms," Abumoghli says. "Maybe reintroducing water it has lost over the past 10 years will help contribute to holding the soil together.
"Better integrated planning and zoning of areas is needed. People build cities where there's a little bit of green. But why not build cities in the desert areas? We need a holistic, integrated approach."
One of the ideas mooted at a recent meeting in Kuwait was building tall concrete walls to act as a barrier to the wind and sand and dust particles.
This, however, will not happen as long Unep is involved, Abumoghli insists.
"Personally I'm against walls," he says. "How long is that wall? How high? Who knows how high a sand or dust storm goes up? I do see the point, but my reaction is that walls separate ecosystems. If you build a wall in an area, you're intervening in the ecosystem of the animals and you can't move freely from one area to another. Of course, you can build a wall of trees that can play the role of concrete."
A better and more feasible solution, he says, is to reintroduce agriculture and lure people back to some of the dry areas on the borders.
The initial funding to do this could come from the trust fund set up by the Sand and Dust Storms Project, but would take years to be implemented.
"We are thinking about it from a comprehensive point of view," Abumoghli says.
"There is a significant social aspect that needs to be considered at all times. If you provide better water management in the local areas, people will not need to leave those areas.
"Of course no one single country alone can solve these issues, it's spread all over the region. The hotspots aren't in one country but in a different number of countries. The response should be regional [and] by all the countries that are impacted. This is what we hope to achieve."
Mitya Underwood is a senior features writer for The National.