30 August 2022

Sandstorms and Desertification: Instability in the South of Iraq

In the last four months, vast regions of Iraq have been engulfed by several waves of dust and sandstorms. Although the phenomenon is not new to the country, its severity and frequency are unprecedented. Historically, the Middle East region has been battered by dust and sandstorms but recently their impact on people’s livelihoods, health and stability has exacerbated. Experts attribute the intensity to the impact of climate change on the region where low precipitation, high temperatures and desertification are on the rise. The Iraqi Ministry of the Environment has warned that by 2050 more than 300 sandstorms may occur annually, finding long and short-term solutions is, therefore, crucial for stability.

This article examines the root causes of dust and sandstorms in Iraq, specifically in the south, their ramifications on stability and possible solution.

Why the spike?

Drought is one of Iraq’s biggest climate change concerns and is directly linked to the spike in dust and sandstorms. Waterflow from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has decreased by 30 – 40% over the past 40 years, and by 2050, the World Bank expects another 20% decrease in overall water resources. This rapid decline combined with extreme temperatures has led to the desertification of over 50% of the total arable lands. Desertification is also responsible for the formation and encroachment of dunes towards urban centres in central and south Iraq. As a result, the area affected by dunes in the south has increased from 29% in 2000 to 53% in 2018. Other non-climatic factors that have contributed to soil degradation include poor water management, outdated agricultural practices, pollution and conflicts. Due to years of political instability and weak governance, Iraq is currently reaping the fruits of its poor water management. This Summer, Al Hawizeh marsh, northeast of Basra, has completely dried up. Experts' recommendations to avert or mitigate this catastrophe were ignored by authorities in Baghdad, and now over 900 square km of arid land are added to the deserted area in the south. Moving to the southwest, lake Sawa has also dried up because of unregulated well digging by farmers and plants owners. Outdated agricultural practices are another major factor. Flood irrigation is still widely practised in north Basra and other governorates where rice and other water-intensive crops are cultivated. Soil pollution due to unregulated industrial activities and waste dumping, like brick plants and solid waste disposal, are adding to the problem of soil degradation. Finally, years of conflict where heavy military vehicles roved the desert have broken the natural crust that took decades of bacterial growth to stabilize.

What causes dust and sandstorms in the south?

Southern Iraq’s climate is classified as a hot desert climate, with long summers extending from April until October. The region experiences most dust waves during the especially hot and dry months from June to August when rain and humidity are lowest. The dry weather conditions are aggravated by the impact of climate change and several non-climatic factors. From March to November, pressure systems cause active wind movements that stir up dust and sand. These phenomena are particularly prevalent in the Al Batha area, northwest of Basra,  leading to dune encroachment. The quality of soil in this area is greatly degraded because of temperature rise,  high evaporation rates and low precipitation. Intense heat and varying temperatures during the dry months change atmospheric pressures. As a result, the wind directions change. In the span of 24 hours,  the strong winds could carry volatile sedimentary material for more than 150 km spreading southwards from Al Batha.

Sandstorms exacerbate challenges on multi-levels

 Dust and sandstorms are posing a myriad of challenges to the economy, public health, and stability. This Summer, estimated losses are about seven million US dollars across different sectors but mostly in agriculture. Whilst the country is already struggling with shrinking agricultural lands because of drought, dust and sandstorms are adding to the challenge by reducing crops’ yield and quality. The contamination of dust and sand with smoke from oil wells presents additional health risks, especially for residential areas and water resources. Thousands of people, mostly the elderly, were hospitalized because of respiratory issues and at least one person died. Despite measures taken to reduce exposure to dust, more casualties are expected which could lead to hospitals exceeding their capacity. Disruption to economic activities like aviation and transportation is also driving frustration as plans of afforestation surrounding major roads and airports failed or were neglected. For example, in the south, the encroachment of dunes from the Al Batha area onto the only international road between Iraq’s capital Baghdad and the cities of central and southern Iraq is increasingly obstructing traffic and causing accidents. On the stability side, we saw a surge in protests, especially among farmers, who have been threatening to escalate protests as a result of the impact of drought on their livelihoods. Thus, a lack of immediate response and planning to compensate farmers, for instance, is urgently needed to keep the peace.

Nature-based solutions to counter sandstorms

Local measures can help mitigate the impact of the storms. In 2006, the central government funded, for example, a ‘green belt’ project in Karbala to stop desertification. The project is envisaged as a shield against dust and sandstorms to Karbala and cities to the east of Iraqi western Sahara that borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and covers about 23 per cent of the total area of the country. However, due to funding problems, only 20 km of the planned 76 km were planted. Drought and neglect of the planted trees have further weakened the intended impact of the project.

In the light of severe droughts, prospects to re-establish the green belt or even starting a new one in the south seem unlikely to succeed. However, experts have suggested planting new species that are climate change resilient. For example, the local government of Basra is collaborating with researchers to implement pilot climate-resistance plantation projects. Plant species like the Jatropha, also called “Green Gold”, is a versatile plant that simultaneously serves as a windbreaker and an alternative source of fuel and energy. Not requiring fertile soil or large amounts of water, the plant also yields oil from its seeds which is low in environmental pollution. Tamarix is another tree that counters dust storms and sand dune encroachment and withstands dry soil, storms, salinity, as well as hot and cold temperatures.

Another technological response to southern Iraq’s climate challenges is utilizing saline water for irrigating trees. With rising levels of salinity in rivers, this is becoming increasingly important. Experiments successfully tested producing Salicorna plants irrigated with sea water and more research is being done on other crops that resist salinity and drought.

With the prolonged heatwaves, drought and environmental degradation, Iraq's climate woes are becoming a growing concern. Dust and sandstorms present an additional challenge to the south, where the impact of climate change advances every year, with detrimental consequences for livelihoods, public health and overall stability. The way forward can be drawing on good climate mitigation practices to alleviate desertification in the region where nature-based solutions are utilised. For instance, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, where similar climatic events are experienced, implemented several greening, cloud seeding and desert-control projects to stop dunes encroaching and stabilise volatile soil.  


By  Maha Yassin and Dr. Hassan Khalil
Dr. Khalil is a Researcher at the University of Basra, Marine Science Center and a member of the Basra Forum for Climate, Environment and Security
Photo credit: US Department of State/Flickr