Published at Financial Tribune Daily on February 17, 2015.
Dust storms have engulfed communities, cities and airports from Cairo, Egypt to the City of Zanjan in central Iran. Half a dozen countries in the Middle East were affected by the latest storms. The winds and the dust did not stop at their borders dividing vast deserts and plateaus into national territories. The Middle East as a region needs a unified approach to environment and national policymaking so its residents can breathe.
“Dust storms” have become a part of daily vocabulary in recent years. The destruction of marshlands and wetlands in southeast Iraq and southwest Iran has been so immense that it has transformed our world. The dust storms cover the blue sky and the black asphalt roads, bringing the socio-economic life to halt in many communities and cities. These storms are the consequence of extensive environmental damage caused by the eight-year Iraq-Iran war and intensified by years of volatility.
It is true that no statesman could stop a dust storm using man-made technology. However, it is also true few statesmen have tried to stop the destruction contributing to these storms. It is regrettable to remember across the region more statesmen have implemented policies intensifying this destruction. To address the challenges caused by recent environmental developments, one has to accept first that these events are the outcome. To address them one has to address the root causes.
Politicians of the region often have a relaxed attitude toward the environment and environmental policymaking. Some governments have considered environmental damage the dispensable price for achieving their goals in the process of economic development. Some dictators altered and destroyed the ecosystem to punish rebellious populations. The Marsh Arabs of Iraq paid dearly for their opposition to former president Saddam Hussein, who in pursuing absolute power destroyed their livelihood. Nevertheless, increase in the intensity and the frequency of dust storms has increased the economic damage caused by them. When cities halt one cannot call those economic development policies responsible for the environmental damage anything but short-sighted. The economic development process should increase the volume of economic transactions not reduce them by creating a hazardous environment.
The marshlands of Iran and Iraq covered an area as large as 20,000 square kilometers constituting the largest ecosystem of its kind in western Asia. However, their size reduced drastically from the 1950s to 2000s. Iran and Iraq share these marshlands and fought a devastating war in them. Iran’s share of marshlands was estimated as large as 118,000 hectares. More than half of this area has dried off. The damage is much larger across Iraq’s marshlands. Both governments have begun addressing this damage. There is a long way in bureaucratic circles from “addressing” an issue to “implementing” a solution. As long as the damage and the storms continue, communities keep on paying for this environmental damage through reduced economic activities and increased healthcare costs.
Recent weeks have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of emergency cases in Iran’s Khuzestan and shutting down of Cairo International Airport. Daily life was disrupted across several countries. Natural calamities are not restrained by national borders. If anyone has any doubt that in the Middle East we share the same ecosystem and breathe the same air, he only has to look at the photos from Cairo, Ahwaz and other cities. Air pollutants do not need a visa to travel from south of Iraq to north of Egypt. This is not a hypothesis but a fact dictated by the laws of nature that the communities across the Middle East depend on each other for their livelihood and the quality of air they breathe.
It is time for policymakers in the region to look beyond their borders to formulate one unified regional environmental policy. They should remember their goodwill will be limited to their countries and its efficiency reduced if other nations do not follow suit. Ironically all communities of the region pay for their excesses that damage the environment. It is time to talk, to coordinate, and to put our differences aside. We live in one vast ecosystem stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Oman and the Red Sea. Our borders do not change that.