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CMES Regional Outlook: Dust Storms in the Middle East - Insights from Satellite Data and AI

An AI generated image of a dust-storm and the logo for CMES.
AI generated image

This Regional Outlook provides insight into an emerging environmental hazard: dust storms in the Middle East, one of the driest regions in the world. It also sheds light on the typical drivers and new technologies that can help investigate this phenomenon. Some sustainable mitigation measures are also discussed.

Significant changes in recent years, such as population growth and climate change, have led to environmental challenges in the Middle East, with dust storms at the forefront. The Middle East is a major contributor to global dust emissions, accounting for 20-25% annually. This is equivalent to a staggering 400-500 million tons of dust. These storms damage infrastructure, hamper visibility, and diminish crop yields by displacing nutrient-rich topsoil. According to the 2019 World Bank report on Sand and Dust Storms in the Middle East and North Africa, the damage to infrastructure costs around 13 billion USD annually. They also pose a significant health threat to inhabitants: approximately 118,000 lives were lost to dust storms and associated pollution in 2016 alone, mainly related to respiratory problems.

What are the factors affecting dust storms?

Dust storms often occur due to strong and turbulent winds blowing over deserts or arid soil surfaces. These storms can lift large quantities of dust into the air and transport them hundreds or thousands of kilometers. Dust storms can come from natural deserts and areas under human influence. However, emerging dust sources caused by human activities have been more pronounced in the last couple of decades. This has led to severe dust storm incidents, particularly in the countries sharing the Euphrates and Tigris River Basin, with Iraq being the most impacted. 

Map of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers with Iraq in the center. Lake Urmia in Iran is marked by a red star
Map of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers with Iraq in the center. Lake Urmia in Iran is marked by a red star. Source: CIA World Factbook

Given the fast population growth and the increasing human interference in nature, it is very likely that dust storms will occur even more often in the future. Recent studies show that human activity, such as water management and farming, has significantly impacted the surface water bodies (like lakes and rivers) and topsoil, making them vulnerable to dust source generation in this important basin. Our studies have revealed that when critical water bodies, such as lakes and marshlands, are improperly managed, they shrink and become significant sources of dust in the region. By using satellite images, we can show how overuse and mismanagement of water resources upstream of Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran have led to dry areas around the lake. These dry areas have become a regional dust source with the potential to affect areas as far as several hundred kilometers away.

We have also found that farming activities, which are impacted by water management as well as rapid droughts, can lead to increased dust generation. This increase in dust on the ground contributes to more severe dust storms. Specific types of farming activity have a significant impact on the risk of land becoming a source of dust storms in the Middle East. When people alter the way they manage their land and use unsustainable practices, this can lead to dust storm generation, which is particular to this part of the world. We observe that land management has been largely affected by armed conflict in the region, which could lead to the vulnerability of these land areas becoming future dust sources. 

How can technology be used to study dust storms?

The conventional method is to use ground-based sensors (such as visibility sensors), typically installed in meteorological stations, to detect dust particles. When horizontal visibility reduces to a certain extent, a dust storm is reported. However, a dust storm is typically a large-scale phenomenon that requires a dense network of meteorological stations or a combination of different measurement techniques and technologies to achieve an overall assessment of the severity and scale. New technologies, such as satellite-based sensors, have been instrumental in the detection of dust storm plumes and sources in the past decades. Satellite observation combined with artificial intelligence has shown to be an effective tool for studying dust storms in the Middle East.

The Middle East lacks a sufficient number of meteorological stations. Due to this, researchers in the region have developed ground-breaking techniques to study dust storms. For instance, the MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) satellite has been instrumental in studying dust storms. Recently, a state-of-the-art satellite mission, Sentinel, has taken the utility of remote sensing in dust storm studies to another level. On cloud-free days, the images combined with satellite imagery techniques can provide a thorough insight into the scale and severity of storms. The technique can also detect dust sources where dust jets are initiated. In the last five years, researchers have successfully integrated satellite imageries and artificial intelligence to arrive at a more detailed understanding of the causes and vulnerability of land to dust storms. This has revealed the link between land and water management and drought occurrences and dust storm frequency and severity in the region, which was not possible before. 

What can be done to prevent dust storms?

Our studies show that drought and improper land and water management are critical factors in the generation of dust storms in the region. Therefore, prevention measures need to target the impact of human activity. Nature-based solutions, formerly known as soil and water conservation, are key for mitigating and preventing the emergence of dust storm source areas. These sustainable techniques have been practiced for thousands of years in the region and are adapted to the region’s arid and semi-arid climate conditions. They demonstrate a thorough understanding of the environmental limitations and resource management in arid environments. The environmental degradation caused by unsustainable land and water management can be reversed by using these ancient technologies.

Despite the fact that many such techniques have been abandoned, some of them are still being practiced in the region. For example, ancient water harvesting systems can protect topsoil against dust storms and enhance water availability for farming activity. This technique can enhance vegetation coverage, which protects the loose, arid land soil. Floodwater harvesting has shown great potential in land rehabilitation and increasing water resources. Using this technique, floodwater can be stored (underground) during the rainy season and used for farming during the dry months. The harvested water improves soil moisture and promotes natural vegetation cover. As floodwater in arid environments carries a substantial amount of sediment, including clay and silt, these fine-grained materials can be spread to protect the topsoil against strong winds and dust storms. The system can also support shrub and tree plantation through flood irrigation, which creates windbreaks, slows down wind speed, and mitigates dust storms.


In conclusion, the land and water resources in the Middle East have been increasingly disturbed by rapid droughts and human activities. However, the impact can be mitigated using traditional techniques, which are accepted by the local people and are considered environmentally friendly. Many techniques have been abandoned, requiring efforts to revive and adapt them to the current conditions and needs.

This article is related to the MECW project AI in the service of socio-politically adapted sustainable dust storm control in the Middle East.

This article is part of the CMES Regional Outlook on Current Affairs series. The author is responsible for the analysis and views expressed in this publication.

CMES Regional Outlook

The CMES Regional Outlook series provides fresh perspectives and in-depth analyses of current events in the MENA region. Based on the multi-disciplinary expertise held by researchers at CMES, the series provides explanations of topical developments on issues, such as mass protests, elections, cultural and religious affairs, migration patterns, foreign policy and security, environment and climate change.

Read more about the series