Sand and dust storms (SDS) affect 151 countries and pose real threats to the lives, health, well-being and sustainable development of millions of people.
Governments are starting to act, but they need inspiration to work together.
Successful and collaborative actions on SDS contribute directly and indirectly to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In March this year, an unusual sand and dust storm nicknamed ‘Mars on Earth or Orange Snow’ transported and deposited dust that transformed European landscapes into a surreal orange-tinted scenery. An even more drastic dust storm swept over India recently and left behind a trail of casualties. Then in May, sand and salt storms transferred from the dry Aral Sea, known as the Aralkum Desert, covered some provinces and the capital city of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat. Cotton fields, orchards and pastures were covered with salt. 
Such events alarm us about the magnitude and seriousness of this recurrent natural disaster. But why is it happening and what are the impacts of sand and dust storms?
Sand and dust storms (SDS) are often associated with just a few countries, such as China, Kuwait, and South Korea in Asia. But they affect 151 countries directly and pose real threats to the lives, health, well-being and sustainable development of millions of people.
Sand and dust storms gained serious global attention just three years ago because of the growing impacts of air pollution on health, the emergence of new sand and dust storm source areas and increasing damage and losses in some areas. It was the first time the global community signaled a readiness to take concrete action.
Considering the havoc recent dust storms have caused, in India for example, the public must capitalize on this momentum to get policy-makers to take bold and coordinated action and to engage the public in all affected countries. The next opportunity might be a regrettable moment, with epic catastrophic losses.
Air pollution is typically associated with the burning of fossil fuels. It is viewed as a relatively new environmental threat. In fact, extreme air pollution from sand and dust storms has existed for millennia.
A massive sandstorm in Egypt 2,500 years ago buried the army of Persia’s King Cambyses. An ancient Chinese word meaning “dust rain” appears in the Bamboo Annals that date back to 3,000 years ago. Sirocco, haboob, yellow dust, white storms and the harmattan all refer to sand and dust storms. But one of its most notorious manifestations in modern history was the 1930s “dust bowl” in the United States, which drove farmers out of business.
Sand and dust storms cause serious health conditions. Prolonged exposure to fine dust causes premature death. It damages the air sacs in the lungs and causes or worsens the symptoms of bronchitis and respiratory diseases, such as asthma. Reduced visibility during dust storms increases the chance of accidents.
Globally, 334 million people and 14% of children experience asthmatic symptoms. Meningitis and valley fever outbreaks in Africa and the US are associated with dust storms.   Moreover, if dust is contaminated by chemical residues from agricultural land or mining sites or air pollutant matter, for example, it can cause even more serious health and environmental problems in the areas where it is deposited.   
The economic costs, too, can be staggering. Sand and dust storms linked to activities in oil production and exploration costs Kuwait at least US$190 million every year. The city of Sydney in Australia is threatened by dust storms. The economic impact of one such dust storm on 23 September 2009 was estimated at US$219 million.
The impacts of sand and dust storms are felt beyond the country of their origin, making them a transboundary – and thus political – issue. Dust affects many development sectors, from agriculture, transportation, solar energy and industry, to sanitation, water quality and the Earth’s system itself – its weather, nutrient cycle and biomass productivity.
Despite these wide-ranging and growing impacts, public attention to and policy action on sand and dust storms lag behind real needs. Experts warn that urgent action must be taken before it gets too expensive to contain these phenomena.
A recent Global Assessment of Sand and Dust Storms produced by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) shows that human activity and climate change may increase the intensity and occurrence of sand and dust storms.
Dry areas are typically the source of major natural dust storms. However, other landscapes – agricultural lands, high latitudes, dry water beds and industrial sites – are now also source areas. Sites where dust is deposited in urban areas can become secondary sources of the re-suspension of deposited dust. These anthropogenic sources make up approximately 25% of the global dust emission. Emissions are mostly attributed to the removal of vegetation cover, overgrazing, and the drainage of surface water.
Governments are starting to act, but they need inspiration to work together.
Since 2015, the UN General Assembly has adopted three resolutions in a row to combat sand and dust storms. In 2016, the second session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) resolved to tackle sand and dust storms. Then, in 2017, the 13th session of Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD adopted its first decision on sand and dust storms. The Conference invited governments to take action based on the activities proposed in the Convention’s Policy Advocacy Framework on sand and dust storms.
The Framework sets out precautionary measures to minimize the negative impacts of sand and dust storms in the three key areas of early warning, resilience and preparedness, and source mitigation. In addition, countries that are potential sources of sand and dust storms need to explore this threat when considering their voluntary national targets for achieving land degradation neutrality (LDN).
LDN is a Sustainable Development Goal target (15.3) measuring the health of the land. The UNCCD is the custodian of the LDN target. The inclusion of the LDN concept in the UNCCD 2018-2030 Strategic Framework as a key tool for implementing the Convention strengthens its achievement. LDN can provide an effective framework to address anthropogenic sources in affected areas.
Last December, the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on sand and dust storms that calls for policy coordination of global actors and a UN system-wide approach and action plan to address these challenges.
With this political will, we have a lot to build on.
Discussions among governments do more than deepen global commitment. They inspire a coordinated, coherent, harmonized and integrated policy approach and concrete action plans for global and regional actors. They can motivate broader engagement of stakeholders, particularly scientists, local authorities and communities and the private sector, in risk management planning and actions. And they can promote strengthened national coordination among policy-makers in different sectors to assure policy development, implementation and adequate resources.
We must deal with the root causes of sand and dust hazards by reducing emissions from sources caused by human activity. But dust does not respect political boundaries, so we must work together.
It will take cooperation and coordination in order to enhance resilience and preparedness among different actors and fields, especially if it is guided by disaster risk management principles. The focus of the UN-system wide approach should be to fill gaps and to build upon and strengthen current actions.
For instance, the WMO’s Sand and Dust Storms Early Warning Advisory and Assessment System aims to build capabilities for improved and reliable SDS forecasts of countries. Initiatives under UNEP and the UNCCD’s regional and national action plans to establish vegetated strips to prevent desert expansion in China and Africa are delivering results. These are basic building blocks for a global action plan to combat sand and dust storms.
Successful and collaborative actions on sand and dust storms contribute directly and indirectly to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For instance, they will help countries to achieve: SDG 3 on health and air quality; clean water as called for in SDG 6; SDG 11, which calls for making human settlements safe and sustainable; land degradation neutrality and biodiversity conservation targets under SDG 15 (life on land); climate action under SDG 13; sustainable agricultural production under SDG 2 (zero hunger); and economic growth as addressed in SDG 8.
Sand and dust storms pose serious health and economic costs. Rolling out an effective, comprehensive and people-centered sand and dust storm management strategy will save costs and enhance the resilience and preparedness of vulnerable communities and ecosystems.
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