‘Vicious Circle’: Gulf Storms Intensify as Climate Changes | News on the climate crisis

Over the past few weeks, many Gulf residents have been watching apocalyptic orange skies with a flurry of sand and dust storms (SDS) hitting the sub-region.

The construction of more dams, years of war, poor water management, extreme drought, desertification and other factors all contribute to this nightmarish phenomenon.

On an increasingly climate-stressed planet, storms in these mostly desert countries, which exist in a dust belt, will intensify. These exacerbated ecological crises lead to increasingly serious threats to human health, economies and security in the Gulf.

These cross-regional issues also have a lot of potential to be a driver of future inter-state conflicts across the greater Middle East.

The temporary closure of ports, airports and schools last month in Iran, Iraq and some Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states underscored how recent SDSs have had a major impact on trade , travel and daily life of the inhabitants of these countries. countries.

Kuwait International Airport suspended all flights twice last month. On May 16, maritime operations in three Kuwaiti ports – Doha, Shuaiba and Shuaikh – were suspended due to climatic conditions. Sand and dust storms hit Riyadh and other parts of Saudi Arabia, hospitalizing at least 1,200 people in the kingdom with breathing difficulties in May.

Dubai’s Burj Khalifa was invisible after a huge layer of dust cleared the tallest building in the world.

In Tehran, authorities closed schools and government offices amid dozens of flight delays or cancellations in western Iran. In Khuzestan, the hardest-hit region of Iran, at least 800 people with breathing difficulties have been forced to seek treatment.

Iraq was perhaps the country most vulnerable to sand and dust storms. Since March, a storm has hit Iraq approximately every week, sending thousands of Iraqis to hospitals and the government declaring a national holiday to encourage residents and government workers to stay home. At facilities in some parts of the country, the Iraqi Ministry of Health has even resorted to stockpiling oxygen cartridges.

These ecologically dire conditions in the Gulf are just the latest sign of the dangers that climate change and other related factors pose to the Middle East.

“In Gulf waters, SDS is a primary cause of sediments that can clog nearby lakes and marshes, and sometimes even blanket large swaths of the Gulf waterway,” wrote Banafsheh Keynoush, foreign affairs specialist and member of the International Institute of Iranian Studies.

“Even renewable solar panels perform poorly when covered in dust. Considering these factors, it becomes clear that SDS participates in a vicious circle: climate change causes the storms, and the storms exacerbate the impacts of climate change. Socio-economic life revolves around the weather, so livelihoods are at serious risk,” added Keynousch.

According to the World Bank, sand and dust storms in the Middle East have an annual cost of $13 billion. Certainly, such storms in the region constitute a transregional crisis. Recognizing the importance of the Middle East to the global economy from the point of view of international trade via the waterways and strategic energy supplies, countries far from the Gulf will pay a higher price as the phenomenon worsens.

Opportunity for armed groups

Disturbingly, there is a growing threat of violence from sand and dust storms. For years, the armed group ISIL (ISIS) in Iraq has exploited the poor visibility resulting from these storms to carry out attacks with greater ease.

In May, ISIL carried out attacks in Kirkuk and Diyala provinces, targeting farmers who were harvesting. In April, ISIL exploited the huge storms that hit the Iraqi army in the city of Hit, in the province of al-Anbar, killing two soldiers.

Understandably, Iraqi security forces will find it difficult to deal with the SDS which makes them more vulnerable to future ISIL attacks. With these extreme weather conditions forcing the military to suspend some of their operations and air support, it will be easier for fighters to exploit these storms to carry out more frequent attacks on Iraqi military and civilians, especially in the hardest areas. more remote.

Beyond concerns about terrorism, experts warn that these unusual storms have the potential to spark interstate conflicts in the region over water. Environmental crises related to low rainfall, drought and falling river levels can increase tensions between countries.

Turkey’s construction of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is one of the factors leading to greater desertification in Iraq, where water resources have dwindled 50 percent since 2021, with an ebb from the Gulf to the Iraqi mainland.

“Salt water actually comes from the sea into freshwater areas,” Tallha Abdulrazaq, a Middle East security and strategic affairs expert, told Al Jazeera. “It kills arable land, causes soil salinization and ultimately leads to desertification.”

Iran’s digging of canals around the Bahmanshir River, a tributary of the Shatt-al-Arab, “has artificially altered the median line of Taluk in the Shatt-al-Arab, which historically – and especially since the agreements of Algiers – demarcated the border between Iran and Iraq through the Shatt-al-Arab,” Abdulrazaq explained.

“Basically the lane was split down the middle between the two. By artificially modifying this border, it can lead to conflict not only over borders and access to Shatt-al-Arab, but also to the pollution of Iraq’s water supply.

Desertification

The issue of Turkish dams is also adding tension to Ankara’s relationship with Tehran, with Iranian officials blaming their country’s drought in part on Turkey’s construction of dams upstream.

On May 12, a spokesperson for the Turkish Foreign Ministry fired accusations as “far from scientific”, while claiming that Tehran is not taking a “realistic approach” to this problem by placing the blame on Ankara’s doorstep.

As sand and dust storms terrify people in Iraq and other countries in the region, the severe effects of desertification are only intensifying as global warming has the potential to make reduced rainfall more permanent with a devastating effect on the ecology.

Among other factors, these terrifying environmental issues may be drivers of future conflict in the Middle East.

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