• Sunday 18th August 2019

Droughat turns part of Iran into a new dust bowl

In southeastern Iran, summers have never been for the faint-hearted. The temperature routinely tops 110 F (43.3 C). There isn’t a hint of rain. When, every May, a vicious, hair dryer-like wind, known as the Wind of 120 Days, begins to whip in across the semi-arid flatlands, the entire area wanes under a months-long barrage of sand, cloying dust, and noise.

American soldiers across the border in neighboring Afghanistan are warned to be particularly wary when these gusts pick up. “High winds can turn tent pegs and loose objects into flying missiles (which may not be visible in blowing sand),” cautions “A Soldier’s Guide to Staying Healthy in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” a U.S. army medical manual. Locals are sometimes forced to shout at one another just to make themselves heard amid the breathless whistling.

And that was before things really went wrong. In recent years, Sistan and Baluchestan province, which makes up much of the most affected area, has become bogged down in a relentless wave of environmental disasters. A prolonged drought has hastened the disappearance of the storied Hamun wetlands, while higher temperatures continue to evaporate what meager surface water remains. At up to 1,500 square miles (4,000 square kilometers), the wetlands were a bountiful source of irrigation and promise in a land with little of either.

But now the dust storm season has expanded, sometimes spanning half the year—and so, as a consequence, has the volume of respiratory problems. In 2016, the UN’s World Health Organization ranked Zabol, a provincial hub, as the most polluted city on the planet. With agriculture now all but impossible and everyday life a struggle, locals and officials alike say that the region risks becoming uninhabitable.

“From one side of the wetlands, Afghanistan has built several dams in the upstream, and on the other, the area is faced with constant drought,” said Naser Moghaddasi, a senior advisor to the Iranian Department of Environment and the country’s delegate at the COP 24 climate conference in Poland in early December. “It’s created a hotspot in what was once a prime area for cultivation and created big problems for a lot of people.”

Country-wide threats

Where once deer and leopards rummaged for food, now fire engines stand ready to tackle the blazes that often erupt across the bone-dry landscape. According to local media reports, Sistan and Baluchistan received only 1.1 inches (29 mm) of rain this past winter, less than a third of its requirements.

Iran as a whole is buckling under the pressures of climate change and poor water management. Lake Urmia, formerly its largest body of water, has mostly withered away—as has Lake Bakhtegan, once the second largest in the country. At Isfahan, the Zayandeh River seldom flows these days, leaving the city’s famous arched Khaju Bridge high and dry. And, in June 2017, Ahvaz in Khuzestan province, aside the Persian Gulf, posted one of the highest temperatures ever recorded, 128.7 F (53.7 C). (Read more about the collapse of Lake Urmia.)

There’s every possibility the situation might deteriorate further, experts warn. Climate change-related woes are thought to have played a part in the fierce anti-government protests which roiled Iran in late 2017 and early 2018 and ultimately left at least 20 people dead. Much of the Gulf might soon be too hot for humans, according to a 2015 MIT study.

Regional collapse?

But in Sistan and Baluchistan, many horrors are already playing out. As a distant and isolated province with an almost entirely agrarian economy, it’s been poorly placed to adapt. In a possible harbinger of things to come elsewhere, it’s slowly falling apart.