Linked to Climate and Land Agendas, Sand and Dust Storms Gain Attention
UN Photo/Martine Perret
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The Fifth International Workshop on Sand and Dust Storms (SDS), underlined the close interlinkages among SDS, land degradation and climate change.

In a bid to raise the global profile of these issues, a ministerial-level dialogue on drought and SDS was organized at the 13th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

The third session of the UN Environment Assembly, in December 2017, may provide an opportunity to highlight the impact of SDS.

The Fifth International Workshop on Sand and Dust Storms (SDS) underlined the close interlinkages among SDS, land degradation and climate change. The workshop was attended by more than 100 experts from Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa regions, as well as representatives of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the World Meteorology Organization (WMO) and UN Environment. The meeting was one of several recent events seeking to raise awareness for action on the development impacts of sand and dust storms, and linking the issues to international climate and land agendas.

The international conference convened in Istanbul, Turkey, from 23-25 October 2017, and was organized under the auspices of the ‘Ankara Initiative,’ which was adopted during the twelfth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 12) to the UNCCD, hosted by Turkey in 2015. The objective was to exchange information and share experiences among scientists and related organizations so as to better understand the sources of dust storms and patterns of dust transport affecting the Middle East Region, as well as their interactions with the climate.

In his opening remarks, Turkey’s Director-General for Combating Desertification and Erosion, Mustafa Gozukara, stated that SDS often originate in dryland areas, which cover 41% of the Earth’s land surface and comprise some of the most fragile ecosystems, highly susceptible to global climate change. Veysel Eroglu, Minister of Forestry and Water Affairs, reiterated Turkey’s commitment to desertification control, including through delivering financial support and large numbers of seeds and seedlings to African countries, under a global initiative to plant a seedling for every person on the planet by 2023.

The importance of sustainable land management (SLM) in fighting SDS was also the subject of the high-level International Conference on Combating SDS that took place in Tehran, Iran, in July 2017. Calling for a collective response, ministers and other high-level officials agreed that unsustainable land management is among leading factors contributing to SDS, which pose a major obstacle to the development in affected countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. They noted that promoting SLM can minimize the risk of future storms and reduce their impact on human health, agriculture, food security, infrastructure and the environment in rural and urban areas and across a broad range of ecosystems that includes croplands, rangelands, wetlands and deserts.

Discussing “why sand and dust storms matter,” a UN Environment fact sheet prepared for the second session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in May 2016 highlights the growing frequency, intensity and geographical range of SDS in recent decades, with an “immense impact on the global economy, forcing airports and schools to close, interrupting supply chains, destroying crops and overwhelming hospitals.” The fact sheet cites research showing that about US$13 billion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is lost every year due to dust storms in the Middle East and North Africa.

The publication identifies the primary dust storm regions as the Sahara Desert, the Middle East, the Taklamakan Desert in northwest China, southwest Asia, central Australia, the Etosha and Makgadikgadi basins of southern Africa, the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia and the Great Basin in the US.

Among the health impacts of SDS, the publication notes that fine particles of dust can travel thousands of miles on the back of these storms, which may also carry pathogens and harmful substances, causing acute and chronic respiratory problems. It cites estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) that seven million people die from poor air quality every year. The fact sheet also highlights the role of dust storms in increased desertification, drought and soil salinity, while reducing water supplies and impeding renewable energy sources. In one example, the publication notes that about two to three billion tonnes of fine soil particles leave Africa every year in dust storms, “draining the continent of its fertility and biological productivity.”

Outlining some benefits of early warning systems on SDS, the fact sheet states, inter alia, that: early warning systems, at the national and regional level, could give people time to take cover, seal doors and vacate the streets; enable farmers time to bring in livestock, farm equipment; and even allow for harvesting all or a portion of a crop before storm onset. The fact sheet also highlights the role of regional and international cooperation in enhancing understanding of the transportation paths of dust storms, particle contents and their impacts, and promoting ecosystem-level restoration efforts to address the root causes of dust storms.

Among good practices in SDS control, the publication notes China’s efforts to monitor dust storm events since the 1950’s, allowing scientists to make better predictions about how land will be affected when a dust storm occurs. It also mentions cell phone-based early warning systems developed by South Korea’s Meteorological Administration and the National Weather Service in the USA, as well as a website hosted by the National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology in the United Arab Emirates that warns citizens about dust conditions and visibility. The publication also takes note of large-scale ecosystem restoration efforts, such as the Great Green Wall projects in China and the Sahel that have planted billions of trees to reduce the frequency and intensity of dust storms.

In a bid to raise the global profile of these issues, a ministerial-level dialogue on drought and SDS was organized at the 13th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), held in Ordos, China, in September 2017. Proponents of a decision on this topic underlined the high economic impact, as well as the transboundary nature of SDS, and called for a binding protocol to enhance regional- and global-level action on this issue. However, echoing difficult discussions at UNEA-2, delegates failed to reach agreement on a global approach to address SDS. In its final decision endorsing the draft ‘Policy Advocacy Framework to Combat Sand and Dust Storms,’ COP 13 invited parties to use the Framework, “as appropriate, on a voluntary basis,” in their SDS policy development and implementation at the national and regional or international levels. The decision also called for the mainstreaming of SDS issues in national disaster risk reduction policies, and mentioned the need for cooperation, information exchange and knowledge sharing and transfer, “as appropriate,” in the affected areas.

With its overall focus on ‘Towards a Pollution-Free Planet,’ UNEA-3, which takes place in December 2017, may provide an opportunity to highlight the impact of SDS. [UNCCD Press Release on 5th International Conference on SDS] [IISD RS Coverage of UNCCD COP 13] [IISD RS Coverage of UNEA-2] [UNEA-2 Fact Sheet on SDS]


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