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Sand and dust storms

GS Paper 3

Topics Covered: Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation;


Context: Sand and dust storms impact over 500 million in India, according to Asian and Pacific Centre for the Development of Disaster Information Management (APDIM) report Sand and Dust Storms Risk Assessment in Asia and the Pacific.

APDIM is a regional institution of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

Key Findings:

  • More than 500 million people in India and more than 80 per cent of the populations of Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iran are exposed to medium and high levels of poor air quality due to sand and dust storms.
  • Sand and dust storms contribute significantly to poor air quality in Karachi, Lahore and Delhi in ‘southwest Asia’. Nearly 60 million people in these places 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 parts of Western Australia, south-easternTurkey, Iran and Afghanistan.


What are Sand and dust storms?

  • Sand and dust storms are common meteorological hazards in arid and semi-arid regions. They are usually caused by thunderstorms – or strong pressure gradients associated with cyclones – which increase wind speed over a wide area.
  • These strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust from bare, dry soils into the atmosphere, transporting them hundreds to thousands of kilometres away.
  • Some 40% of aerosols in the troposphere (the lowest layer of Earth’s atmosphere) are dust particles from wind erosion. The main sources of these mineral dusts are the arid regions of Northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and China.
  • Once released from the surface, dust particles are raised to higher levels of the troposphere by turbulent mixing and convective updrafts. They can then be transported by winds for lengths of time, before being pulled back down to the surface again.


Environmental Impact:

  • Sand and dust storms are a transboundary meteorological hazard. They affect agriculture, energy, environment, aviation, human health.
  • In some places, much of this dust is characterised by high salt content, making it toxic for plants.
  • Very high dust deposition also occurs in the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau, that are the sources for fresh water for 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.


Sand and dust storms directly affect 11 of the 17 United Nations-mandated sustainable development goals (SDG): 

  • Ending poverty in all forms
  • Ending hunger
  • Good health and well-being
  • Safe water and sanitation
  • Affordable and clean energy
  • Decent work and economic growth
  • Industry innovation and infrastructure
  • Sustainable cities and communities
  • Climate action
  • Life below water
  • Life on land


The impacts of dust storms are not all negative. They can increase the nutrient content in the areas of deposition and benefit vegetation.

Dust particles that carry iron can enrich parts of oceans, improving the phytoplankton balance and impacting marine food webs.


Way Forward:

  • Deeper understanding of the socio-economic impact of sand and dust storms.
  • Establish a coordinated monitoring and early warning system.
  • Coordinate actions in most at-risk and exposed geographical areas to mitigate the risks.
  • Managing the risks associated with sand and dust storms would also become necessary in places not previously recognised as source areas for such phenomena.


Mains Link:

Discuss how dust storms are formed? Examine the impact of climate change in formation of dust storms?

Source: Down to Earth