Scientists at a United Nations body have expressed alarm as sand and dust storms are becoming more frequent across Asia and Africa.
According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the world is losing 1 million square kilometres of productive land a year to sand and dust storms. It is estimated that 2 billion tons of sand and dust enter the atmosphere every year, causing economic damage worldwide and challenging efforts towards sustainable development.
The dire warning from UN experts should not be taken lightly. A recent study published in Nature Geoscience suggests that a massive cloud of dust may have played a crucial role in the extinction of dinosaurs millions of years ago. Dust from pulverised rock ejected into the atmosphere when an asteroid smashed into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago, may have been a main factor in mass extinctions. The atmosphere would have been choked, preventing plants from harnessing sunlight for photosynthesis.
Although today’s dust problem pales in comparison to the cataclysmic event that wiped out the dinosaurs, it still poses significant challenges to food supplies, migration patterns, navigation, and regional security.
Sand and dust storms are natural phenomena. Strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust from dry surfaces and carry them over long distances. However, the experts say that at least a quarter of these storms may be the result of human activity, mainly over-mining and over-grazing. Climate change-induced droughts and the expansion of desert regions have also escalated the frequency and intensity of these storms.
Unlike the dinosaurs, we today can mitigate the effects of unpredictable weather events. UNCCD experts call for better land management to rehabilitate damaged land and improved early warning systems. They also call for proper funding to combat desertification and land degradation. Only $15 billion was made available in the period 2016-2019 for this problem that affects 126 countries.
Unless urgent action is taken, the problem will grow worse. Governments should forget about conflicts, lay aside their differences and open the door to co-operation. Sharing information, technology, and best practices can help develop appropriate strategies.
In an era marked by advancements in technology, an interconnected global community, and increased awareness of our impact on the Earth, it is disheartening to witness the lack of international co-operation to safeguard the planet from numerous environmental hazards. Otherwise, we will end up like the dinosaurs, choking in a dusty atmosphere in which plants cannot survive.