Over the past 25 years, the world has seen a rise in the frequency of natural disasters in rich and poor countries alike. Today, there are more people at risk from natural hazards than ever, with those in developing countries particularly at risk. This essay series explores measures that have been taken, and could be taken, in order to improve responses to the threat or occurrence of natural disasters in the MENA and Indo-Pacific regions. Read more ...


 

Inexplicably, sand and dust storms do not appear on the agenda of humanitarian action or studies on disaster risk reduction learning and action. This omission is odd, given that in recent decades sand and dust storms worldwide have become more frequent, severe, and destructive.

This essay discusses the circumstances and consequences of several such weather calamities that recently took place in India. It argues that Middle Eastern countries, among others, have been experiencing similar, recurring disasters. It further argues that there is both a need and scope for collaborative approaches to mitigating the adverse effects of sand and dust storms. And it offers key recommendations for advancing a joint Indian-Middle Eastern agenda to address this challenge.

Sand and Dust Storms: Snapshots of the Indian Experience      

According to the World Meteorological Organization, sand and dust storms usually occur when strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust from bare and dry soils into the atmosphere.[1] Dust storms are not new to India. Not only have they recently struck large cities such as Delhi and Ahmedabad, but for many years have battered the rural settlements and towns of Bhuj and Mandvi.  

However, the scale and intensity of the dust storm that stretched from the western state of Rajasthan to the eastern state of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi on May 2-3, 2018 took many by surprise.[2] The storm resulted in more than 140 fatalities,[3] injured several hundred, and inflicted damage to property whose financial toll has yet to be determined.[4]

Hemant Gera, who oversees disaster management and relief in Rajasthan, told the BBC the storm was the worst he had witnessed in his 20 years in office.[5] Officials stated that the May 2-3 storm was more devastating than its predecessors, both because it struck at night when people were sleeping and because the severe weather system swept up debris that collapsed roofs and damaged homes and buildings.[6] Less than two weeks later, another dust storm raked northern India, this time striking Delhi (see image below), as well as parts of Punjab and Haryana.[7] The next month, a dust storm swept across Uttar Pradesh, leaving 15 dead.[8]

In the case of the May 2-3 disaster, the local administration could have proactively made certain arrangements, including providing information as to how to protect life and seek shelter from dust storms; however, not much was done on the ground in the absence of a precise warning alert.

The NDMA is reportedly in the final stages of issuing a common alert protocol (CAP), which has the potential to prevent deaths from thunderstorms or dust storms, squalls and urban flooding.[9] However, there are many additional steps that the authorities could, and should take, including conducting a detailed study that addresses the following questions: What causes dust storms? What was the impact of dust storms on society and economy? How did the state respond? How did the affected families cope and recover? And what is the current thinking and plan to respond to dust storms in future?

Experts have said that high temperatures played a significant role in intensifying the storms that originated in the desert area of northwest India and further west. Officials from the environment ministry say a quarter of the country’s land is undergoing desertification, while independent experts put the figure much higher. Increasing desertification would mean more severe and destructive dust storms.[10] In India, extreme weather events can quickly lead to dozens of deaths and cause economic hardship.

Estimates of the monetary cost of dust storms to India’s economy have yet to be worked out. [11] However, a World Bank report published in 2013 estimated that environmental degradation costs India roughly $80 billion, or nearly 6 percent of the country’s GDP, each year.[12] Several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, including Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) and the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), have predicted that droughts will become more severe in this part of South Asia and that, as a result, dust storms could occur more frequently. Sand and dust storms can have major adverse impacts, ranging from higher morbidity and mortality rates to reduced economic growth, especially for lower-income nations and vulnerable communities.[13]

Disruptive Weather in the Middle East: Facing the “New Normal”

The “new normal” of disruptive weather, including the increasing frequency and severity of dust storms and sandstorms, is not limited to the Indian Subcontinent. In remarks to the BBC in 2016, Enric Terradellas of the World Meteorology Organization, observed that, “In the Middle East there has been a significant increase in the frequency and the intensity of sand and dust storms in the past 15 years or so.”[14] In August 2015, a dust storm in seven Middle East nations led to several deaths, as well as thousands of cases of respiratory ailments and injuries.[15] In October 2017, a large dust storm blanketed skies in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.[16]

According to the high-level General Assembly meeting at United Nations, the impact of sand and dust storms on developing countries can be managed with stronger collaboration and improved information-sharing. For example, the UN World Meteorological Organization’s Warning Advisory and Assessment System is now capable of issuing forecasts as much as three days in advance. However, the challenge ahead is to ensure that this information reaches the most vulnerable populations.[17] Joint knowledge is needed on sand and dust storms because they are overlooked in most disaster risk reduction plans. Additionally, joint action is needed to mitigate the damage stemming from such storms.

The good news is that there is budding interest within the Middle East in seeking collaborative approaches to addressing the problem of sand and dust storms. In March 2018, Iran sent a letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, calling for a regional task force to tackle this challenge. In July 2017, Iran’s Department of Environment and the Foreign Ministry, with the cooperation of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat as well as the UN Environment and the UN Development Program, hosted an “International Conference on Sand and Dust Storms; Challenges and Practical Solutions.”[18]

However, the somewhat discouraging news is that, although the recently organized Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) 2018 at Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia addressed the increasing risk of heat waves, the rising risk of sand and dust storms is barely mentioned in the Asian Regional Plan or the Ulaanbaatar Declaration.

Towards a Joint India-Middle Eastern Approach

India and Middle Eastern countries can, and should collaborate to reduce the risk of sand and dust storms by building joint knowledge on managing these disasters in the following areas:

Ø A joint program that captures and shares knowledge to understand and predict sand and dust storms to manage their impacts upon society and economy, including health.

Ø Investment in research and application of dust storm forecasting and early warning. India Meteorological Department and Indian Space Research Organization have a role to play. Execution can be done by local administration.

Ø Launch of a joint program on desertification control: What has worked? For example, use of native plants and trees as buffer can reduce wind velocity and sand drifts at the same time increase the soil moisture for a longer duration.

Ø  Joint research to understand community perspectives on root causes of sand/dust storms, indigenous knowledge of community in this regard (i.e., prediction, preventive measures, and coping mechanisms).

Ø  Lessons on traffic management in urban areas (smart cities) is important to countries in the Middle East and India.

Ø  Building capacity of authorities and communities including school children and teachers to take preventive actions and effective response.

Conclusion

Indian and Middle Eastern societies have long traditions of surviving and managing both sudden and slowly unfolding sand and dust storms. Yet, their respective experiences and knowledge have seldom, if ever, been conjoined for mutual benefit. Over the years, India and her Middle Eastern counterparts have developed extensive multi-dimensional ties. There is both the need and the opportunity to extend their relations by developing a joint resilience and risk reduction agenda that is not only in their individual and collective interest but also in the interest of all affected states, societies, and local communities.

 


[1] “Sand and Dust Storms,” World Meteorological Organization, https://public.wmo.int/en/our-mandate/focus-areas/environment/sand-and-….

[2] Malavika Viyawahare, “This is what caused the ‘freak’ dust storm that killed more than 100 people in north, west India,” Hindustan Times, May 3, 2018, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/this-is-what-caused-the-freak….

[3] George Martin, “India dust storm death toll rises to more than 140 people …,” Daily Mail, May 4, 2018, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5690715/India-dust-storm-death-….

[4] Swati Gupta and Ben Westcott, “More than 110 killed by high-intensity dust storms in India,” CNN, May 3, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/03/asia/india-dust-storms-intl/index.html.

[5] “India dust storms: More than 125 killed as storms continue,” BBC World News, May 4, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-43999497.

[6]  Lindsey Bever, “‘It was a nightmare’: Killer dust storm blasts India, leaving at least 125 dead,” Washington Post, May 3, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/capital-weather-gang/wp/2018/05/03/….

[7] “Dust storm and rain hit Delhi, bad weather kills several across India,” Hindustan Times, May 14, 2018, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/strong-winds-and-rain-hit-delhi-ncr-regions/story-esi2ln3lvBlhU60jm7ThiP.html.

[8] “Dust storms in Uttar Pradesh claim 15 lives in 2 days,” Times of India, June 14, 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/dust-storms-in-uttar-pradesh-….

[9] Kaylan Ray, “New alert technology for dust storms in the offing,” Deccan Herald, May 3, 2018, https://www.deccanherald.com/national/new-alert-technology-dust-storm-o….

[10] Navin Singh Khadka, “Why were India’s dust storms so deadly,” BBC World News, May 4, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-44010413.

[11] “Dust Storms Worsen India’s Air As Part Of Deadly ‘New Normal,’” NDTV, June 19, 2018, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/dust-storms-worsen-indias-air-as-part-o….

[12] World Bank, Diagnostic Assessment of Select Environmental Challenges Valuation of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in India, June 5, 2013, http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/942861468268505130/pdf/700040….

[13] “Impact of sand and dust storms on developing countries can be managed, UN meeting told,” Devdiscourse, July 16, 2018, https://devdiscourse.com/Article/60480-impact-of-sand-and-dust-storms-o….

[14] Quoted in Navid Singh Khadka, “Middle East worst hit by rise in sand and dust storms,” BBC World News, June 17, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36553594.

[15] Matt Soniak, “Giant Middle East dust storm caused by a changing climate, not human conflict,” Science Daily, January 13, 2017, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170113155423.htm.

[16] Adam Voiland and Kathryn Hansen, “Dust Blankets the Middle East,” NASA Earth Observatory, October 29, 2017, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/91207/dust-blankets-the-middle….

[17] “Impact of sand and dust storms on developing countries can be managed, UN meeting told,” Devdiscourse, July 16, 2018, https://devdiscourse.com/Article/60480-impact-of-sand-and-dust-storms-o….

[18] United Nations Development Program (UNDP) – Iran, “International Conference on Combating Sand and Dust Storms Iran,” July 2, 2018, http://www.ir.undp.org/content/iran/en/home/presscenter/articles/2017/07/02/international-conference-on-combating-sand-and-dust-storms-iran.html. For a report on the outcome of the conference, see United Nations Environment Programme (UNEF), “International Conference on Sand and Dust Storms: Note by the Secretariat,” https://papersmart.unon.org/resolution/uploads/k1800232inf7.pdf.