Published on Arab Voices

Blown away: New report highlights sand and dust storms in MENA & offers solutions

Tempête de sable et un nuage orange planant sur Gafsa, Tunisie. (Lukasz Janyst / Tempête de sable et un nuage orange planant sur Gafsa, Tunisie. (Lukasz Janyst /

When sand and dust storms hit a major city such as Cairo, Marrakech, or Riyadh, the streets, and anyone caught outside, are consumed by a massive orange cloud. Strong winds loosen soil and create a wall of sand, dust and debris. These extreme events happen in minutes, catching people totally unprepared. Families and children run for shelter while ports, schools, businesses, and airports close.

The Middle East and North Africa region is the dustiest in the world, and the frequency and intensity of both sand and dust storms have worsened over the past century . Research on the ground and by satellite show that the Sahara Desert is the largest source of dust and sand in the world. Our just published report Sand and Dust Storms in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Region—Sources, Costs and Solutions, offers a detailed review on this data and several pathways toward better warning systems, better health outcomes, and reduced economic costs.

In our report, we also examine the economic costs of dust and sand storms and found that these extreme events cost MENA more than $150 billion annually, which is equivalent to more than 2.5% GDP for most countries in the region. 

When I joined the Middle East and North Africa team at The World Bank, it was clear that sand and dust storms, and their environmental and health impacts were understudied. More recently, the topic has gained international attention from the United Nations agencies and partners, including the World Bank MENA environment team, as we examine the topic more deeply. We know that poor land management leads to land degradation, which can lead to dust storms. Dust and sand can have profound impacts on health, livelihoods, and communities.

Dust and Sand Storms Lead to Serious Health Problems and Disease

We compared MENA air quality to other regions. MENA has one of the highest concentrations of particulate matter, measured as PM2.5 and PM10 levels, in the world. Within MENA, the people of Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan suffer disproportionately more in terms of premature deaths—as many as 30,000 deaths in the region can be attributed to bad air quality. Health studies examined in our report strongly link Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) to higher concentrations of dust in the air. Health studies, which include emergency room visits, offer strong evidence that dust causes and exacerbates asthmatic conditions. In Kuwait, for example, dust storms led to an 8 percent increase in daily emergency asthma admissions over a period of five years. In Qatar, another study discussed in our report found that asthma attacks were reported to increase 30 percent after windy conditions.  

Dust storms adversely affect human health and life, both in the drylands and in downwind regions. Studies demonstrate that African dust can travel as far as the Caribbean and Florida,  negatively impacting the air quality in the Caribbean Basin.

Yet very few studies have assessed the costs associated with dust and sand storms in specific countries. Just trying to quantify some of the immense costs provide a grim and disturbing picture of how big the dust problem really is.

Of course, we wanted to know what drives dust and sand storms and how we can combat them.

Land degradation is one of the least understood yet significant drivers of many sand and dust storms, and MENA is suffering from increased land degradation . Ecosystem service losses in MENA are about four times the global average as a result. Rangeland in Jordan, for example, covers more than 80 percent of the country, yet the land has degraded to such a degree that livestock can no longer graze in pastoral areas. Soil erosion and dust storms during drought are also increasing. The Maghreb Region covering northwest Africa to the Sahara Desert also experienced dramatic degradation due to a unique combination of overdevelopment and climate change.  

The devastating economic, welfare, and health costs from dust storms are finally receiving considerable attention. A new United Nations Coalition on Combatting Sand and Dust Storms has been launched to raise awareness and drive resources to the region. There exists now a great opportunity for innovative large-scale restoration investments to address land degradation in MENA, where livelihoods are dependent on the productivity of the soil, and the poorest are the most vulnerable. Improved warning systems, both ground- and satellite-based, are essential to better health outcomes. Countries are in urgent need of support to prevent a continued downward spiral of land degradation and increasing dust and sand storms. At all costs, we must avoid reaching that tipping point where land becomes so sterile it just blows away.

Village of Bilad Sayt in Al Hajar Mountains in the Sultanate of Omanan curb dust formation and reduce sand storms.
Village of Bilad Sayt in Al Hajar Mountains in the Sultanate of Oman. (Alexey Stiop/
Sustainable land management can curb dust formation and reduce sand storms.



Craig M. Meisner

Senior Environmental Economist in the Middle East & North Africa Region.

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