Over 500 million people in India exposed to sand and dust storms

Storms worsen air quality and degrade vast farmland areas, disrupt commercial flight services, lower the efficiency of solar power generation, and accelerate the melting of glaciers. (Image: ESCAP)
Storms worsen air quality and degrade vast farmland areas, disrupt commercial flight services, lower the efficiency of solar power generation, and accelerate the melting of glaciers. (Image: ESCAP)
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According to a new UN report, more than 500 million people in India are exposed to medium and high levels of poor air quality due to sand and dust storms. The report, Sand and Dust Storms Risk Assessment in Asia and the Pacific, has been launched recently by the Asian and Pacific Centre for the Development of Disaster Information Management (APDIM) in a side event to the seventh session of the ESCAP Committee on Disaster Risk Reduction.

In the past few years, sand and dust storms have taken a high toll in terms of socio-economic damage and loss in the areas exposed to this hazard, underscoring the need to take prompt action to address the challenges associated with them.

In this backdrop, APDIM undertook to understand the severe multidimensional impact of sand and dust storms, including the deterioration of human health, well-being and urban health, and the potentially adverse impact on clean energy production, transport, agriculture and environment sectors, the result is this report.

In the context of global climate change debates - highlighting the extreme weather conditions and the rising temperature causing exacerbated meteorological hazards - the new report assesses the risk of sand and dust storms separately for a number of critical sectors, namely agriculture, energy, environment, aviation, human health, glacier melting and cities.

It demonstrates how these storms worsen air quality and degrade vast farmland areas, disrupt commercial flight services, lower the efficiency of solar power generation, and accelerate the melting of glaciers.

 “Sand and dust storms seriously affect several areas in the world, including in Asia and the Pacific,” said Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. “The report reveals that sand and dust storms pose risks to both society and environment and directly threaten the achievement of 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The report demonstrates that the cumulative effects of sand and dust storms on society are significant, and they are more frequent than most other types of natural hazards, and their impacts are complex.”

The risk assessment demonstrates that the cumulative effects of sand and dust storms on society are significant, not least because sand and dust storms occur more frequently than most other types of natural hazards. Their impacts are complex, and they represent an important emerging issue for policy-makers in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Mobilizing coordinated regional action is paramount to reduce risk and strengthen resilience to the negative transboundary impact of sand and dust storms,” said Letizia Rossano, Director of APDIM. “The evidence presented in this assessment calls for the Member States to strategize their joint actions, considering gaining a deeper understanding of the socio-economic impact of sand and dust storms, establishing a coordinated monitoring and early warning system with an impact-based focus, and coordinating actions in most at-risk and exposed geographical areas to mitigate the risks”.

The report’s analysis - first of its kind for geographic and sectoral scope - shows that the health of millions of people in South and South-West Asia is affected by sand and dust storms as are thousands of hectares of agricultural lands in Central Asia and thousands of hectares of glaciers in Himalaya and Tibetan mountains.

The report specifically makes the case that there is an urgent need for countries in the region to consider joint action towards a deeper understanding of the socio-economic impact of sand and dust storms; a coordinated monitoring and early warning system, with an impact-based focus, to timely forecast sand and dust storms and enable targeted measures to minimize exposure and reduce risks and coordinated actions in most at-risk and exposed geographical areas to mitigate the risks.

Sand and dust storms occur frequently in deserts and semi-deserts when strong winds detach small particles from dry soils with little or no vegetation cover. The Asia-Pacific region is the world’s second-largest in terms of mineral dust emissions, with four main sand and dust storm corridors: (i) East and North-East Asia; (ii) South and South-West Asia; (iii) Central Asia; and (iv) the Pacific subregions. These corridors contain numerous sand and dust storm hotspots.

Sand and dust storms are important for the functioning of ecosystems, but they also pose risks to society and the environment, directly threatening the achievement of 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The impacts occur not only where these atmospheric events originate but also in places downwind far from the source areas, frequently across international boundaries.

This report assesses the risk of sand and dust storms separately for each sector analysed – agriculture, energy, environment, aviation, human health, and cities – using a quantitative method with a transboundary approach at a regional scale. Risk is measured as a function of the hazard posed by sand and dust storms, vulnerability (exposure and sensitivity), and resilience.

For all sectors, the dust hazard is assessed on an annual basis using data from the Modern-Era Retrospective Analysis for Research and Applications, Version 2 (MERRA-2), a reanalysis dataset that combines observational and modelled climatological conditions. Exposure, sensitivity, and resilience are each characterised using appropriate datasets, where data are available separately for each sector.

In the energy sector, sand and dust storms have a considerable impact on the generation of electricity by solar power plants which, measured in economic terms, is greater than USD 107m a year in India. The risk to electricity generation posed by sand and dust storms is likely to become greater as governments strive to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (SDG 7).  In the aviation sector, the exposure of aircraft engines to dust particles is a considerable risk on flight paths traversing south-western and central parts of Asia.

Large areas of farmland are affected by dust deposition. Much of this dust is characterised by a high salt content, which typically makes the dust toxic to plants. This reduces yields, representing a significant threat to the production of irrigated cotton and other crops.

Very high dust deposition occurs in the Himalaya-Hindu Kush Mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau, the so-called Third Pole which provides fresh water to more than 1.3 billion people in Asia. The deposition of dust on glaciers induces a warming effect, increasing the melting of ice, with direct and indirect impacts on society through numerous issues, including food security, energy production, agriculture, water stress and flood regimes.

Cities in southwestern parts of Asia have the highest exposure to sand and dust storms, which make a significant contribution to poor air quality in Karachi, Lahore, and Delhi, where nearly 60 million people experienced more than 170 dusty days a year in 2019. The risk of impacts from sand and dust storms is projected to increase in the 2030s due to more extreme drought conditions in the Ganges basin in India face a lower risk of drought and hence probably less risk from sand and dust storms.

Managing the risks associated with sand and dust storms may also become necessary in places not previously recognised as source areas for such phenomena due to more extreme droughts.

This risk assessment report demonstrates that the cumulative effects of sand and dust storms on society are significant, not least because sand and dust storms are more frequent than most other types of natural hazards. Their impacts are complex, they are very widespread, and they represent an important emerging issue for policymakers. However, our understanding of how sand and dust storms interact with society and the environment is still undermined by considerable uncertainties.

A lack of data presented one of the most prominent challenges throughout the process of conducting this risk assessment. Several types of sand and dust storm hazard are poorly accounted for, and in-depth risk assessments for sand and dust storm events across multiple sectors at national and local levels are needed. At the international level, coordinated multi-country transboundary studies of individual dust storm events are required to fully understand their multiple impacts. The lack of data is particularly acute in the case of economic analysis.

This situation has prompted ESCAP-APDIM to advocate for sand and dust storm issues to be mainstreamed into disaster risk reduction strategies and become fully integrated into multi-hazard management plans for disaster risk reduction at all levels and across all sectors. Given the frequent transboundary impact of sand and dust storms, there is a strong case for the design and implementation of well-coordinated actions at national, regional and interregional levels.

The analysis in this report highlights critical areas for countries in the region to consider joint action towards:

  • A deeper understanding of the socio-economic impacts of sand and dust storms;
  • A coordinated monitoring and early warning system, with an impact-based focus, to timely forecast sand and dust storms and enable targeted measures to minimize exposure and reduce risks;
  • Coordinated actions in most at-risk and exposed geographical areas with a view to mitigating the risks.
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