About UNEP UNEP Offices News Centre Publications Events Awards Milestones UNEP Store
GEO Year Book 2003  
UNEP Website GEO Home Page
Sandstorms, floods, heatwaves, forest fire: signs of environmental change?

The increased incidence in 2003 of immense dust and sandstorms, as well as floods, heatwaves and forest fires in West Asia may indicate long-term environmental change. Countries are, however, taking measures to improve coping capacity in terms of natural disasters.
Seven years of severe droughts in West Asia came to an end in 2002–2003 with record rainfall. Heavy rain flooded rivers, wadis and agricultural areas in Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Syria and Saudi Arabia. There were other extreme weather related events:

The heaviest snowstorm since 1950 swept across the Eastern Mediterranean on 25 February, cutting power and closing highways and schools in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria (NOAA 2003a, BBC Weather 2003);

In Oman, thunderstorms on 14 April produced torrential rains and flash flooding in the northern part of the country, leaving 14 dead, and causing extensive damage to property (Gulf News 2003);

In Nizwa, southwest of the capital city of Muscat, 66 mm of rain fell in one day, which is more than double the normal rainfall received in the entire month of April (NOAA 2003b);

In the Makka area in western Saudi Arabia, flooding from the heaviest rain in 25 years caused 12 fatalities and 50 injuries (Al-watan 2003); and

Similar intense floods occurred across the kingdom during December, disrupting power supplies and telephone services; destroying farms, greenhouses, and buildings; and killing a large number of domestic animals (Civil Defense 2003).

Overall, the rains in West Asia were far more severe than had been anticipated, and the region was ill-prepared to deal with the impacts. Human lives were lost, and fish farms, large areas of agricultural land, and irrigation networks were destroyed.

Severe dust and sandstorms were frequent in 2003, affecting large areas (Figure 2) and increasing the risk of respiratory, eye and skin diseases.

West Asia was no exception to the heatwave which affected many other parts of the world during the year, the third hottest year in more than 150 years (WMO 2003). Although high temperatures are common, heatwaves of up to five degrees Celsius higher than normal swept across the region (NOAA 2003b). Even the GCC countries, usually well-prepared for the heat, had problems with power systems, and cases of heat-related illnesses and deaths were reported around the region.

Streets of Alriyadh city, central Saudi Arabia, after flash floods on December 3, 2003.

Source: Alriyadh Daily Newspaper

Forest fires were also associated with weather patterns in West Asia. Lightning ignited forest fires in Saudi Arabia, along the Syrian-Turkish borders, and also in Syria (NASA 2003). In August, fires broke out in many parts of Lebanon, during a heatwave, destroying pine forests in the Shweifat area near the capital, and pines and other trees in the north (Alyaum 2003).

Figure 2: Satellite images of sandstorms in West Asia in 2003. Images were taken over Iraq (April 16)
and Saudi Arabia (March 27).

Source: MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSFC

Earthprint.com Order the Book