Tehran was logged as the most polluted city in the world on Friday, with a “very unhealthy” average real-time air quality index (AQI) of 236 reported by the Swiss monitoring company IQAir. At one point, according to local estimates, the index even exceeded 500, the maximum level on the index.
In recent years, the number of days Tehran has enjoyed clean and healthy air quality can be counted on the fingers of one hand. But on Friday, for the first known time on record, the city had the dubious honor of being more polluted than even Beijing, Delhi or Hanoi.
Officials in Iran said that the sharp worsening of air quality this weekend was linked to dust storms in Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia. One in the Department of Environment also said “low precipitation” was adding to the problem in Tehran, West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah, Kurdistan, Ilam, Khuzestan, Alborz, Zanjan, Qazvin and Qom.
A Perfect Storm
Nasser Karami is a climatologist based in Norway, whose research includes sustainable development in dry areas and the relationship between totalitarianism and the environment. He, too, had some thoughts on the current situation: “Previously, air pollution in Iranian cities was often caused by chemical contaminants. But the recent pollution is mostly caused by dust: a new factor that’s become both widespread and severe.
“Some of the dust in Tehran comes from Iraq and Syria, and another portion from Saudi Arabia. The main reason is climate change, i.e., the drop in rainfall and the climb in temperatures across the Middle East – which, in turn, has increased evaporation and transpiration. This has caused more wetlands to dry up, and more areas to become sources of dust.”
Karami points out that a human factor is involved as well, such as Turkish government’s water policies regarding rivers Tigris and Euphrates and agricultural development projects in Syria and Iraq: “Like Iran, these countries launched ambitious agricultural development projects in areas that had no capacity for them and by building dams and diverting water they caused downstream areas to go dry.”
Another factor, he said, was long internal conflicts having displaced dryland farmers: “Of the millions of Syrians and Iraqis who have been displaced, some were famers, and since they abandoned their lands they’ve become sources of dust.”
Mohsen Arsalan, an environmentalist and research assistant at the Institute of Geography and Geosciences in Nurnberg, points out dust waves do not originate solely from outside Iran. In fact, there are around 35 million hectares of dust-producing land inside the country as well as the 300 million adjacent to it, according report by Ali Mohammad Tahmasebi, secretary of Iran’s National Taskforce to Fight Dust.
Arsalan says dam construction projects in Turkey and Iran have sharply reduced the water flowing into Iraq’s wetlands. “When soil moisture is lost, the very tiny particles that have settled into the waterbeds over centuries can easily be carried off by air currents. These particles are smaller than two microns and, as a result, even an ordinary gust of air can transport them long distances.”
Oil companies repurposing and razing the wetlands, Arsalan says, are also responsible – especially on the Hawizeh Marshes, also known as Hor al-Azim. “The agencies that make and carry out decisions in this area have played their role.”
Other factors, he says, include the uncontrolled exploitation of surface and subterranean water to cultivate high-consumption crops, the diversion of water from rivers and wetlands in western Iran, and the destruction of oak forests in the Zagros mountains.
Arsalan is categorical that the Iranian government will have to cooperate with other countries in the region to alleviate the dust problem. “Something must be done about the construction of dams in Turkey. Iran itself has built many upstream dams on border rivers which have reduced water flow into them.”
Nasser Karami believes the current dust crisis is mainly caused by climate change, an issue not limited to the Middle East. However, he said, “We can also talk about the role of the Iranian government in Syria and Iraq, which has driven farmers from their lands, and about its water policies.
“We also mustn’t forget that the Great Anatolia Project (GAP) that Turkey is implementing is partially responsible for the drying-up of the Hawizeh Marshes in Khuzestan. This project features big dams that have severely diminished the 80 percent of water that flows from Turkey to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. As the project moves forward, it will reduce the flow to Syria and Iraq even more, and make the dust crisis worse.”
According to Karami, it is very likely that Iranian rulers have certain dealings with Turkey that prevents them from challenging Turkish policies and this is going to make the dust crisis bigger and deeper.
Is There Any Hope?
In the short term, Karami believes, in the short term, the prospects are not good. “The dust waves phenomenon is going to become normality in Iran. Now, with climate change, there is no guarantee that rains are on the way that can reduce the dust.”
Mohsen Arsalan agrees with the assessment, and adds there’s more at stake than just the concerns of humans: “We only look at the issue from the perspective of its effects on humans. We overlook the destructive impact of the dust on honeybees, and on their pollination of plants, on which the lives of all animals in the world depend.”
Elsewhere Dr. Roozbeh Esfandiari, a general practitioner based in the United States, said air pollution – whether from chemicals or from dust – is dangerous for everybody but “in the short term, harmful effects show themselves more in the elderly, children and pregnant women.
“Also, people who suffer from underlying diseases such pulmonary and heart ailments are especially vulnerable. Air pollution can affect the amount of oxygen carried in the blood, and as a result, the vital organs don’t receive enough oxygen. This can seriously harm vulnerable individuals, or even lead to their death.”
Official figures released in January 2021 state that every day at least 11 residents of Tehran die as a result of air pollution. The annual number of known deaths due to pollution across Iran is 12,000.
Dr. Esfandiari says the best thing people can do to protect themselves is “to stay indoors as much as possible – and if they have to go out, avoid physical activities and use a mask to block the floating particles to some degree”.
Nasser Karami says Iranians must adapt themselves to a drier, warmer and dustier environment: “It’s like emigrating. You have to change.”