Nature and Biodiversity

Sandstorms are a growing menace, here's how we can minimise their impact

A road after a sandstorm

Sandstorms are becoming more prevalent, but we can work to limit them Image: Photo by Jay Calvin on Unsplash

Pengyu Li
1t.org China Action Lead, World Economic Forum
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Several key regions around the world have been hit by large-scale sandstorms in recent years and some of these areas might surprise you.
  • Most sandstorms are natural events, but they are being exacerbated by climate change, drought, land degradation and unsustainable management of land and water resources.
  • Restoration and more integrated nature-positive solutions are required from the public and private sectors to mitigate this so far under-addressed natural disaster.

It was an April 2023 morning when the northern part of China was engulfed in a cloud of orange haze. It is the fifth time this year that Beijing has been affected by sandstorms. Yellow dust makes seasonal visits to North Asia as sandstorms from the Gobi Desert ride on springtime winds. This year, it reached the Korean peninsula and east to Japan at its farthest.

Yet, North Asia should not be the only region on people’s radar when talking about sandstorms. According to a study by Oxford University, 77% of all parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) are affected directly by dust and sandstorms. Many economically significant regions across the globe have been hit by large-scale sandstorms in recent years.

Key regions affected by dust and sandstorms

Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Almost at the same time that Beijing was blanketed in sand and dust, the Al-Jawf region, including Tabarjal, Dumat al-Jandal, Sakaka and its affiliated villages, located in the north of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was exposed to a sudden, massive wall sandstorm.

Also in March 2023, Iraq's first sandstorm of the year blanketed Baghdad. The country experienced more than a dozen sandstorms last year and thousands of people were admitted to hospital with respiratory problems.

India

In late January 2022, a substantial dust storm enveloped the Arabian Sea. Plumes of desert dust affected populated areas around the basin, as winds carried the particles over Karachi, Mumbai and numerous other cities, degrading air quality. The dust hung in the air for days and resulted in an unprecedentedly low air quality index in Mumbai.

Worse has happened. From 2 to 3 May 2018, high-velocity dust storms swept across parts of North India; 125 people died and over 200 were injured in this disaster.

Switzerland

On 15 March 2022, people across parts of Switzerland awoke to strange orange skies – caused by sand from the Sahara Desert. The sand came mainly from the north-west of Africa and it took several days for the sand to travel from the desert and climb up to between 2km and 5km high.

Australia

In January 2020, damaging winds produced by thunderstorms across central New South Wales whipped up dust storms that turned daytime into night in some towns. The State Emergency Service received 1,453 calls for assistance, more than 1,000 of them for building damage.

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A natural process?

The move of dust from Earth to atmosphere is a natural process, however, over the past century, global annual dust emissions have increased by 25% to 50%, primarily due to the combination of land use and climate change. Increasing desertification, for example, makes Iraq go through "272 dust days" per year, rising to more than 300 by 2050.

This is not just a case of having dirty windows or cars. Economically, it has affected the MENA region significantly: about $13 billion in GDP is lost every year due to dust and sandstorms. And a strong correlation between dust and meningitis outbreaks is identified in Sahelian countries.

What needs to be done

To mitigate devastating sandstorms, restoration works, but only with the right approach.

Take the case of the Kubuqi Desert as an example. Its restoration began in the 1980s. Its plantation area is divided into three regions according to its peculiar geographies. Area A is along the north bank of the Yellow River, a strip of 110km along the river and 20 km wide from north to south. In this area, mainly liquorice and other trees are planted.

Area B is in Yihewususumu County, a rectangular area of 70km long in the East-West direction and 30km wide in the North-South direction, mainly planted with liquorice. Area C is in Bayannaoer County, a 225km2 square-shaped area under tree plantations. Adjusting species to the local conditions, suitable tree and grass species are arranged in these different areas.

As a result, the vegetation aerial cover within the Kubuqi belt has reached a level between 65% and 70% with reported average benefits of 30% wind reduction at 20cm above the ground surface. The success of restoration requires following ecologically sound principles, such as “the right tree in the right place.”

Beyond restoration

The Kubuqi model is successful, yet this alone is not enough.

In recent years, scientists have identified sustainable land management as an effective approach to reducing a wide range of adverse dust and sandstorm impacts on people's livelihoods. The idea of Rangeland sustainable management is slowly being adopted by people. This focuses on managing and reducing soil erosion and desertification and recovering agricultural soils degraded by salinization.

In Jordan, the National Agricultural Research Centre has partnered with an international organization to establish micro water harvesting structures in the Badia uplands to capture and store rainwater.

Mongolia has gone a step further by expanding its national network of specially protected areas and integrating grassland planning into regional land use plans. The country's Environmental Impact Assessment law requires biodiversity offsets for all mining and oil development projects, helping infrastructure developers and other related businesses avoid sensitive areas.

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The importance of ecologically sound restoration and afforestation is also proven by Algeria, which initiated measures to replant forests after independence in 1962. For the first four decades, however, it had little success at 42%, mainly due to the choice of species.

Learning from this experience, the government decided to emphasise sustainable development and improved tree and fodder shrub plantations and the development of water conservation techniques. Evaluation of the Green Dam from 1972 to 2015 shows that 0.3 Mha of forest plantation was planted, which represents 10% of the project area.

Looking ahead, a stronger collaborative effort between local communities, businesses and government is necessary to mitigate this natural disaster. This effort must combine restoration initiatives with integrated nature-positive solutions to halt desertification and rebuild the now-damaged ecosystems.

Pak Yin Choi also contributed to this article.

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