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Sand and Dust Storms

  • 22 Nov 2023
  • 9 min read

For Prelims: United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Sand and dust storms, Agriculture, Deforestation, Aral Sea, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

For Mains: Sources of Sand and Dust Storms, Effective Ways to Minimize the Impacts of Sand and Dust Storms.

Source: DTE

Why in News?

The recent meeting of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) shed light on the far-reaching consequences of sand and dust storms and proposed crucial policy recommendations to mitigate their effects.

What are Sand and Dust Storms?

  • About:
    • Sand and dust storms are meteorological events that occur when strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust particles from the ground and transport them over long distances.
      • They mainly affect arid and semi-arid regions, but can also impact areas far from their source.
    • Annually, over two billion tonnes of sand and dust traverse extensive distances across the Earth's atmosphere, creating a global phenomenon with profound implications.
  • Sources of Sand and Dust Storms:
    • According to the UNCCD, sand and dust storms are caused by both natural and human factors.
      • About 75% of global dust emissions originate from natural sources in the world’s drylands, such as hyper-arid regions, topographic depressions, and dry ancient lake beds.
      • The remaining 25% are attributed to human activities, mainly agriculture.
    • Some of the Anthropogenic Causes of Sand and Dust Storms are:
      • Unsustainable Agricultural Practices: Agriculture stands as a primary anthropogenic source, with activities like tillage, land clearing, and abandoned croplands contributing to dust emissions.
      • Land Use Changes: Alterations in land use patterns, including deforestation and urbanization, contribute to the destabilization of surfaces, enhancing dust emissions.
      • Water Diversion: Excessive diversion of water from rivers for agricultural purposes can lead to the shrinkage of water bodies, creating new sources of sand and dust storms.
        • For example, the excessive diversion of water from rivers in Central Asia over several decades towards agriculture has shrunk the Aral Sea, a pre-existing lake between Kazakhstan to its north and Uzbekistan to its south.
        • It has now become the Aralkum Desert, a significant new source of sand and dust storms.
    • Climate-Related Amplifiers:
      • Aridity and Minimal Precipitation: High air temperatures, minimal precipitation, and arid conditions act as drivers, amplifying the likelihood and intensity of these storms.
      • Extreme Weather Events: Intensified wind patterns and prolonged droughts due to climate change exacerbate the severity and frequency of sand and dust storms.
  • Impacts:
    • Environmental Impacts:
      • Soil Degradation: Sand and dust storms strip away fertile topsoil, affecting soil quality and fertility.
        • This degradation reduces the land's ability to support vegetation, impacting agriculture and leading to desertification.
        • The loss of fertile soil also affects water retention and nutrient availability.
      • Ecosystem Disruption: These storms can alter ecosystems by burying vegetation, disrupting natural habitats, and affecting wildlife.
        • Invasive species carried by the storms might outcompete native species, leading to biodiversity loss and ecological imbalance.
    • Socioeconomic Impacts:
      • Health Effects: Health impacts are wide-ranging, affecting respiratory health, causing allergies, and exacerbating existing conditions like asthma.
        • Recent incidents, such as a two-day storm in Mongolia in 2021, illustrate the devastating impact on human lives, displacing thousands and causing casualties alongside substantial livestock losses.
      • Economic Losses: Sand and dust storms cause substantial economic losses by damaging infrastructure, reducing agricultural productivity, disrupting transportation, and increasing healthcare costs.
        • These events can also impact tourism and trade, affecting local and regional economies.
      • Social Disruption: Disrupted daily life due to these storms can lead to social unrest, migration, and displacement.
    • Global Implications:
      • Transboundary Impact: Sand and dust storms do not adhere to geopolitical boundaries; they can cross borders, affecting multiple countries.
      • Climate Feedback: The transportation of dust particles globally due to these storms can influence climate feedback loops, impacting weather patterns and potentially contributing to climate change.

Note: Sand and dust storms also present a formidable challenge to achieving 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report Sand and dust storms: A Guide to Mitigation, Adaptation, Policy, and Risk Management Measures in Agriculture.

What are Effective Ways to Minimize the Impacts of Sand and Dust Storms?

  • Preventive Measures:
    • Soil Moisture Management: Implement effective water conservation methods to retain soil moisture and prevent desertification.
    • Regulatory Framework: Enforce strict land-use regulations to curb activities leading to soil degradation and dust emissions, such as overgrazing or improper land development.
    • Eco-friendly Practices: Promote sustainable agricultural techniques like agroforestry and contour plowing to preserve soil structure and reduce wind erosion.
  • Preparedness:
    • Early Warning Systems: Developing and implementing effective early warning systems to forecast sand and dust storms. This allows communities to prepare and take necessary precautions.
    • Education and Awareness: Educating communities about the risks, impacts, and protective measures against sand and dust storms can help reduce vulnerability.
    • Emergency Response Plans: Establishing plans to respond effectively during and after sand and dust storms, including providing shelter, medical care, and support for affected communities.
  • Mitigation Strategies:
    • Infrastructure Development: Building infrastructure like windbreaks, barriers, or green belts to reduce the speed and impact of wind carrying dust and sand.
    • Technological Solutions: Researching and investing in innovative technologies for dust suppression and soil stabilization.

What is the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification?

  • The UNCCD is the only legally binding framework set up to address desertification and the effects of drought.
    • There are currently 197 Parties to the Convention, including 196 country Parties and the European Union.
  • The Convention based on the principles of participation, partnership and decentralization, is a multilateral commitment to mitigate the impact of land degradation, and protect our land so we can provide food, water, shelter and economic opportunity to all people.
  • The Convention addresses specifically the arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas, known as the drylands, where some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and peoples can be found.

UPSC Civil Services Examination, Previous Year Questions


Q. What is/are the importance/importances of the ‘ United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification' ? (2016)

  1. It aims to promote effective action through innovative national programmes and supportive international partnerships.
  2. It has a special/particular focus on South Asia and North Africa regions, and its Secretariat facilitates the allocation of major portions of financial resources to these regions.
  3. It is committed to a bottom-up approach, encouraging the participation of local people in combating desertification.

Select the correct answer using the code given below:

(a) 1 only
(b) 2 and 3 only
(c) 1 and 3 only
(d) 1, 2 and 3

Ans: (c)


Q. The process of desertification does not have climate boundaries. Justify with examples. (2020)

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