Weakening the blows of sand and dust storms through better land management 

September 23, 2021
Published by
ICARDA Communication Team
sand storm
sand storm

By Dr. Stefan Strohmeier and Joren Verbist

Strong winds carrying dust clouds from the world's deserts and marginal drylands - otherwise known as sand and dust storms (SDS) - cause much destruction.  

They affect dryland farmers' livelihoods by removing fertile topsoil and smothering crops and livestock. SDS also travel thousands of kilometers to people in cities and towns, creating health complications and bringing transport such as aircraft to a standstill.

In March 2021, a sandstorm even caused a large container ship to veer off course in the Suez Canal, blocking the world's most important shipping route for six days, costing the Egyptian Suez Canal Authority a whopping USD14-15 million per day.  

The tragedy is that many sand and dust storms are an unnecessary, man-made disaster, both a symptom and cause of desertification, where land resources break down due to human overuse. They can also be driven by climatic variations and aggravated by climate change.

Wind erosion not only strips the soil of vital nutrients but also diminishes the land's ability to capture and store carbon. This vital ecosystem service has never been more needed in today's warming environment. 

Global drylands cover about 45 percent of the world's landmass and provide livelihoods for millions of vulnerable smallholder farmers. These areas are particularly susceptible to land degradation due to scarce and variable rainfall and poor soil fertility.

To limit SDS threats to global drylands' rural livelihoods, population health, and economies, ICARDA partnered with FAO in October 2020 to implement the 'Catalyzing investments and actions to enhance resilience against Sand and Dust Storms in agriculture' project. 

The project aims to address SDS-related challenges on small dryland family farmers by working side-by-side with donors, academic institutions, partner countries, and local community members across the drylands. 

Together with ICARDA's research teams involved in this project, the pooling of such extensive and evidence-based scientific knowledge and expertise delivers new approaches and innovations to boost the resilience of dryland agricultural systems and improve farmers' livelihoods.  

Sustainable Land Management (SLM) methods and practices are core to this endeavor. By adequately managing crucial land resources such as soils, water, animals, and plants, SLM allows for the sustainable and environmentally sound production of goods to meet human needs. SLM also ensure the long-term survival, productive potential, and ecosystem functions of such vital resources.  

According to Dr. Feras Ziadat, Land and Water Officer at FAO, SLM can undoubtedly help prevent soil loss in sand and dust storm source areas - but is not the only answer.
"A broader set of management practices, such as risk reduction strategies and planning, are also needed to reduce the wide range of adverse SDS impacts on agriculture and people's livelihoods," said Dr. Ziadat, who chairs the United Nations Coalition on Combating Sand and Dust Storms.

ICARDA experts fully agree, and where ICARDA has successfully deployed SLM innovations in the Middle Eastern and Central Asian drylands, it has done so alongside just such strategies. 

  • In the Badia desert of Jordan, ICARDA has helped restore rangeland watersheds in partnership with Jordan's National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC). They established micro water harvesting structures in the Badia uplands to capture and store rainwater. As a result, high-yielding barley can be cultivated downstream, thereby improving local Bedouin communities' livelihoods and fodder supplies and overturning the creeping desertification process in the area. 


  • Joint research looking into the optimal vegetation cover to mitigate a new SDS hotspot in Uzbekistan has been conducted by ICARDA-Lebanon, in partnership with fellow scientists from Utrecht University, Athens University, the Uzbek Department of International Relations and Ecotourism Development of the State Committee on Forestry. Polluted sand particles in the area where the Aral Sea once stood -before almost entirely drying up a decade ago due to large-scale and unsustainable irrigation schemes- are carried away by strong winds to faraway Russia, Norway, and Greenland. The joint study showed that the volume of polluted Aralkum dust would proportionally decrease as terrain covered with biomass and vegetation expands, also increasing the soil's ability to store carbon and sustain diversity. 

While fundamental scientific research in sustainable land management is critical, documenting those findings and making them available to the larger agricultural scientists' community is essential.  

The ICARDA Institutional Knowledge Management Initiative, carried out by the Monitoring Evaluation & Learning (MEL) team, has done just that in its database. These SLM practices were added to the global network on Sustainable Land Management WOCAT, the World Overview of Conservation Approach and Technologies, promoting the documentation, sharing, and use of knowledge to support adaptation, innovation, and SLM-related decision-making. 

ICARDA scientists are all hands on deck to stop desertification in its track. The various SLM tools used in real contexts and the ongoing research on optimal agronomic packages for specific dryland contexts rehabilitate vast tracts of fragile lands. However, the climate change clock is ticking in the background, reminding us that there isn't much time left. 


ICARDA's work on sustainable land management and combating desertification would not be possible without the close support of its network of partners and donors.

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Further reading material:


About the authors:

Stefan Strohmeier

Dr. Stefan Martin Strohmeier, Scientist - Restoration Initiative on Dryland Ecosystems





Joren Verbist, Technologies Systemization Officer