30 July 2009

No kidding...

After the latest round of dust storms, I'm thinking of changing the name of this blog from "Wings Over Iraq" to "Wings sitting on the ground in Iraq coughing up dust". Indeed, the heavy dust storms in Iraq affect flying, which leads to a lot of slow days. This is bad for my logbook, but good for you, my fans, as I pass the time blogging about defense policy instead talking about the flying I would like to be doing. I guess the one good thing about the heavy dust clouds is that the dust is so damn thick that the visibility and ceilings are too low for no-notice instrument check rides. That has to count for something, right?

Anyway, it's really not much of a story to hear an aviator sitting on the ground complaining about the weather. What is a story, however, is how the dust storms have gotten much worse over the last few years, due to the accellerated erosion and the severe droughts that Iraq has seen (particularly in 2008 and 2009).

You wake up in the morning to find your nostrils clogged. Houses and trees have vanished beneath a choking brown smog. A hot wind blasts fine particles through doors and windows, coating everything in sight and imparting an eerie orange glow.

Dust storms are a routine experience in Iraq, but lately they've become a whole lot more common.

"Now it seems we have dust storms nearly every day," said Raed Hussein, 31, an antiques dealer who had to rush his 5-year-old son to a hospital during a recent squall because the boy couldn't breathe. "We suffer from lack of electricity, we suffer from explosions, and now we are suffering even more because of this terrible dust.
Yes, the Iraqis are complaining about the dust. That's how bad it is.

This summer and last have seen more than twice as many dusty days as the previous four, he said. And 35% of the time, dust is reducing visibility to less than three miles, the point at which it is normally considered unsafe to fly. On many of those days, visibility was zero, delaying flights, disrupting military operations and sending thousands of people to hospitals with breathing problems.

The bad weather may suck for the aviators, but for the lonely Air Force Staff Weather Officer (SWO)--the lone Air Force guy among all of us Army dudes--the constant dust storms make his life easy. All the aviators just look outside, whereupon they realize that they can't see their hand in front of their face, causing everyone to give up on bugging the weather guy to argue over the weather forecast. Ah, the few perks of being the SWO.

But I digress. The LA Times continues:

"The lack of available water is a huge issue and it's having a huge effect on Iraqi society," said Silverman, social science advisor for strategic communications with the Army's Human Terrain System, a program that links social scientists and anthropologists with combat brigades. He emphasized that he was not speaking on behalf of the military.

It's a dramatic turnaround for the country where agriculture reputedly was born thousands of years ago. Iraq's ancient name, Mesopotamia, means "Land Between the Rivers," and though about half the country traditionally has been desert, the fertile plains watered by the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers once provided food for much of the Middle East.

Now the Agriculture Ministry estimates that 90% of the land is either desert or suffering from severe desertification, and that the remaining arable land is being eroded at the rate of 5% a year, said Fadhil Faraji, director-general of the ministry's Department for Combating Desertification.

"Severe desertification is like cancer in a human being," he said. "When the land loses its vegetation cover, it's very hard to get it back. You have to deal with it meter by meter."

It's difficult to know where to begin to untangle the complex web of factors that have conspired to push Iraq to this point. But officials say human error is primarily to blame.

Turkey and Syria, which control the headwaters of the Euphrates, have curtailed the river's flow by half to deal with their own drought-related problems, said Awn Abdullah, head of the National Center for Water Resources Management.

Water has been diverted from the Tigris to keep the Euphrates flowing, causing problems for communities along that river. Iran, too, has been building dams on tributaries of rivers that reach into Iraq, drying out riverbeds in the east of the country.

The effects extend far beyond the immediate inconveniences of dust storms. Drinking water is scarce in many areas of the south as seawater leaches into the depleted rivers. The fabled marshes of southern Iraq, drained by Saddam Hussein and then re-flooded after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, are drying up, and the traditional Marsh Arabs who depend on them for their livelihood are being forced to leave again.

In the cities, rural migrants compete with the urban poor for scarce jobs and resources, and in desperation some turn to crime or insurgency.

And then there are the dust storms, which bring the crisis of the countryside directly into the living rooms of city dwellers. The falling dust has the consistency of talcum powder, and it finds its way into cupboards and corners as well as nostrils and lungs.

"It causes health problems, it disrupts business, it destroys machinery, not to mention the psychological effects," said Ibrahim Jawad Sherif, who is in charge of soil monitoring at the Environment Ministry. "It's a catastrophe that's affecting every aspect of Iraqi life."
It really is an eerie sight to see these dust storms in full bloom. The dust tinges the air a dark shade of orangish-red. When combined with the dirty, rocky landscape, and a faintly-visible sun which looks like a mere speck in the sky, Iraq looks distinctly Martian. Even more so, when you look at the Soldiers walking about, covered from head-to-toe with balaclavas, surgical masks, and goggles.

And let's not even talk about the taste of the dust. Yuck.

Now I know what Anakin was talking about when he complained about sand in Episode II. (Unfortunately, poor Anakin fails to realize that comparing chicks to sand is a really poor pick-up line).


Gunslinger said...

Boy, I do not miss those sand storms. There were some bad ones in the winter of 07/08, but none were nearly as bad as the one in 2003. Between DU and that sand, I'm sure my lungs are fine....

I did always enjoy the downtime though...

Greyhawk said...

Once there was a SWO doing battlefield circulation who was stranded at Kalsu for three days in July '07 by an unforecast dust storm...

However, the season is just about over. Enjoy the snow days while you can!