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     Apr 11, '14

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Dust storms cloud Iranís future
By David Michel

Reaping the whirlwind
Climate pressures, though, are by no means the only factors driving Iranís dust storms. Particular Iranian agricultural, land, and water-management policies substantially aggravate the environmental stresses that worsen dust conditions. For example, over-grazing livestock are dramatically degrading much of the countryside, according to Iranís Forestry, Rangelands, and Watershed Management Organization. Iran is now raising more than twice as many head of livestock as the land can sustainably support. Too many livestock grazing the same pastures have denuded the land of the grasses and other vegetation that hold the soil in place. Some 166,000 square miles of the nationís

rangelands are now in poor condition, and growing expanses of barren ground are in turn exposed to dust-generating winds.

Another problem is that Iran has cut down more than 20% of its forest cover since the 1950s, to clear more land for farming and for burgeoning cities. Deforestation has removed trees that offer natural wind breaks to blunt the dust stormsí blasts.

Government policies have contributed to Iranís dust crises. Water management choices in the countryís northwest have transformed Lake Urmia, the great salt lake straddling the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan, into a nascent dust emissions hotspot. Dams and diversions on the rivers feeding Lake Urmia to provide water for irrigation, industry, and other uses have significantly diminished the flows entering the lake downstream. Reduced river flows, combined with recurrent drought in the region, have drastically lowered the lakeís water levels.

Satellite imagery comparing the evaporating Lake Urmia in 2011 (top) with 1998 (bottom).

In the past two decades, Lake Urmia, once the largest in the Middle East, has lost 60% of its surface area, shrinking from around 2,300 square miles in the 1990s to about 890 square miles today. As a result, winds that used to ripple the lakeís shallow salt waters now blow over dry land, carrying off clouds of salt-loaded silt from the desiccated lakebed. These so-called ďwhiteĒ or ďsalineĒ dust storms are particularly damaging to surrounding agricultural areas because the windblown salt coats crops, harming their growth, and contaminates soils, decreasing their productivity.

Similar strains weigh on the marshes and salt lakes called Hamouns of the Sistan Basin on the eastern border with Afghanistan. Water levels in the shallow Hamoun system, nourished by the Helmand and other smaller rivers coming in from Afghanistan, fluctuate naturally, depending on regional precipitation and snowmelt in the basin. But here too, water withdrawals for irrigation and the development of Iranís Chah Nimeh Reservoir, together with prolonged drought, have cut water flows into the Hamouns. Water levels in the lakes have plunged, uncovering growing patches of dry lakebed. As a result, satellite observations and data on the ground show that dust storms in the area are increasing as the Hamouns dry up.

Dust diplomacy
Lake Urmia and the Sistan Basin highlight the regional nature and international implications of Iranís dust challenge. Though particular storms may originate in Iran, the repercussions reach neighbors as well. The prevailing winds sweeping over Lake Urmia, for instance, can loft dust thousands of feet into the air and carry it northward 150 miles or more into Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Likewise, the Sistan Basin represents a major dust source for all of Southwest Asia, and storms starting in the Hamouns can spread salt-laden sediment across Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Iran is also vulnerable to dust storms born beyond its borders. By tracking satellite images and analyzing the mineral composition of windblown dust particles, scientists can determine where dust storms begin. Their studies indicate that Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia are significant sources of dust storms affecting Iran. Even as far from the frontier as Tehran, 90% of the dust shrouding the capital during the dust storms of 2009-2010 originated in the deserts of Iraq and Syria, according to a study by experts at Iranís Sharif University of Technology.

Dust storms bind Iran together with its neighbors in a reciprocal relationship. Iranís land and water policies fuel dust storms that blow across borders, especially Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran has dammed and diverted waters from numerous streams and tributaries that run from its territory into the Tigris-Euphrates, including the Alwand, Karun and Sirwan rivers that flow into Iraq. And falling water levels in the Hamouns and their effects on Sistan dust storms depend on water flows from the Helmand River, which Iran and Afghanistan share.

So too, land and water use decisions by the neighboring countries generate dust storms that can blow into Iran. Many Iranian experts worry that growing water demands and new dams and diversions by Iraq, Syria, and especially Turkey may dry out portions of the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, increasing desertification and promoting dust storms that could push deep into Iran.

Iran and its neighbors recognize their interdependence and have agreed to cooperate in recent years. In 2009, Iraq and Iran inked an accord under which Iraq was to dampen the dust threat by pouring either a biological or an oil-based mulch onto dust sources in the desert. In 2011, they signed a deal to jointly fund a US$1.2 billion project to cover 3,860 square miles of Iraqi desert with mulch to stabilize the sand. Yet little has come of these agreements and the Iraq-Iran deal has never been fulfilled. In 2010, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Qatar, and Turkey concluded an agreement in Tehran to exchange information, technology, and experience for reducing dust storms. But that, too, is only a beginning.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei plants a sapling on March 5 to mark Tree Planting Day.

Iranís leadership is clearly thinking about environmental issues. On March 5, National Tree Planting Day, Iranís supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged all parts of the government, and all Iranians, to cooperate to protect the environment and resolve the dust storm challenge. And on March 29, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted a reminder for people to turn off their lights for Earth Hour 2014.

David Michel is director of the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank in Washington DC.

Photo credit: Tehran Pollution by Matthias Blume, via Wikimedia Commons, Zayandeh River by Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons, Lake Urmia by NASA via Flickr, Khamenei.ir.

Reprinted with the permission of United States Institute of Peace. For original article, see here

Copyright 2014, United States Institute of Peace.

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