The Middle East's $13 billion sandstorm problem is about to get worse

A man stands near a statue of the famous Arab poet al-Mutanabbi during a sandstorm in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 23.

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Washington, DC (CNN)The skies from Dubai to as far away as Syria turned an apocalyptic orange as dust and sand whirled through the air this month.

Thousands of people in the Middle East flooded hospitals, unable to breathe properly. In Syria, medical units stockpiled canisters of oxygen. Businesses and schools were shut in Baghdad, while Tehran suspended flights and Kuwait halted maritime traffic.
Sandstorms know no borders. They threaten to wreak havoc on a region that's vital to the global economy, with the potential to impact everything from the price of gas at the pump in the United States to how soon a customer in Spain can receive a package from China.
    Experts are warning that the phenomenon is only getting worse. It's driven partly by climate change that's making the region's landscapes hotter and drier, and warping weather patterns to create more intense storms.
      Home to three strategic waterways and almost half the world's known oil reserves, the Middle East is crucial to global trade and energy supply.
      A glimpse of the destructive power of the storms was seen in March 2021, when the Suez Canal was blocked for six days by a ship that was blown off course by a sandstorm, holding up almost $60 billion in trade. Twelve percent of global trade passes through that chokepoint.
      But the storms wreak their greatest havoc on the health of the Middle East's people and their economies. According to the World Bank, the phenomenon costs the region's economy $13 billion a year.
        While sandstorms are typical this time of year, they are now occurring with unprecedented frequency, experts say.
        Iraq has been especially hard hit, with storms occurring on an almost weekly basis this spring. According to Ali Attiya, a professor of atmospheric science at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, a typical spring would see about one to three storms per month, but at least nine major storms have descended on the country since April, with more expected.
        An Iraqi official warned this year that the country is now facing an average of 272 "dust days" a year, with 300 days of dust predicted by 2050.
        "What's happening in Iraq should serve as an early warning sign of what could happen in other parts of the region," Mohammed Mahmoud, director of the Climate and Water Program at the Middle East Institute, told CNN.
        Gulf states are especially vulnerable to increasing dust storms, he says, adding that countries like Egypt and Libya are also at risk.
        Costs range from ruined agricultural crops and damaged machinery to the closure of ports and airports and hours spent cleaning up roads and other infrastructure.
        The factors behind the increasing frequency of the storms are complex -- experts blame scorching temperatures and extreme dryness, combined with years of poor land and water management in countries like Iraq and Iran, for increasing desertification and soil erosion. A drier topsoil means more dust sources can be picked up by the strong winds that blow over the Middle East.
        Some experts say years of war have also played a part in the degradation of land, leading to an increase in dust sources.
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