Iranian officials have expressed hope that residents of the country’s western provinces will have fewer problems with dust particles this year due to the heavy precipitation anticipated in Iraq. The observed environmental changes in Iran and neighbouring countries reduce the possibility of such optimism and appear to indicate that in the coming year and for at least a number of years to come, this unpleasant phenomenon will remain a part of people’s lives in many regions of Iran.

The problem of dust particles in Iran has been exacerbated in recent years, and many regions — especially western and southern provinces — face grave problems as a result and have to shut down entire cities on some days. Ziaeddin Shojai, the head of the Environment Department’s task force to fight dust particles, says the frequency of dust particle attacks has increased by over 15 percent in the past 12 years. At a press conference in April 2014, he said, however, that a 70- to 73-percent rise in precipitation in Iraq will mean fewer days of dust particle problems in Iran.

What is the source of dust particles?

There is no definite answer as to the absolute cause of the dust particles that storm Iran. Many Iranian official bodies including the Department of the Environment and Parliament regard the neighbouring countries of Iraq, Jordan and Syria as the source of these dust storms.

Shojai says satellite photos show that the dust particles originate from the larger region of Mesopotamia and travel to Iran. In recent years, the scope of the dust particles has even reached Tehran, the capital, which, in addition to pollution and poisoned air, has also had to deal with dust particles.

There is, however, a difference of opinion between Iranian authorities and those in other countries. Iran’s Department of the Environment maintains that the neighbouring countries refuse to assume responsibility in this matter. Iran has on several occasions offered to enter into a collaborative plan with Iraq to combat the problem of dust particles; however, Iraq’s internal problems have so far blocked any progress in these plans.

Why are being dust particles produced in the Middle East?

Despite a lack of consensus as to the cause of dust particles in the larger Middle East region, a general belief links them to climate change in the region and particularly to the drying of wetlands and the mismanagement of water resources. A series of natural and human causes have led to the drying of wetlands in Mesopotamia. The abandonment of agricultural land for economic and security reasons and the drying of dams have turned large areas of Iraq into sources of clay earth, which add to the problem of dust particles during windy and stormy conditions. Shojai says 5.6 million hectares of land stretching from Iraq and Syria to Jordan are now sources of these dust particles.

Iran’s part in generating dust particles

While a large portion of the dust particles are being brought into Iran by storms traveling over the neighbouring countries, Iran’s own role in generating dust particles must not be overlooked. Drought and long stretches of water shortage in Iran together with the mismanagement of water resources have led to the destruction of many of the country’s wetlands, and many more are on the verge of drying completely. The southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan is heavily affected by this phenomenon.

Should they come to terms with dust particles?

The head of the Environment Department’s task force to fight dust particles says overcoming them is a long-term task, adding that in the short term, people must learn how to live with them. He says that in China, a similar effort to combat dust particles and stabilize 2.5 million hectares of desertified land in Mongolia took more than 25 years. He therefore believes that what can be done in the short term is to prepare people and industries to reduce the damages resulting from this phenomenon. Such short-term strategies include : public health education; assistance to industries to help produce adequate filters to prevent dust particles from getting into air conditioning shafts; heavy-duty masks could be used by the public, and standardized regulations could be established for public gathering places such as schools.