“It turns out that a sandstorm is not the same wherever it occurs”

AAs a young girl, I checked the weather by looking out the window of my fifth-floor apartment. We lived in a congested part of Cairo, and some days were what I called “orange weather,” when sandstorms fogged the streets below.

On those days, I knew I couldn’t go to school. I had asthma and needed to avoid attacks that could take my breath away and desperately need an inhaler. I always wondered: was I the only one skipping class that day to protect my lungs?

It wasn’t until I moved to Dubai a decade later that I began to understand how climate change could affect my life.

I woke up recently to another sandstorm. This time from my ninth floor west side apartment from Dubai. The foggy blur of my window was familiar to me, but this time I didn’t hesitate to step out of my house to meet my friend.

Asthma is quite common in Egypt, affecting around 8% of children and 6% of adults, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the rates are between 2.8% and 8%.

The Middle East has always been hit by dust and sandstorms and is considered one of the dustiest regions in the world. The frequency of these storms would increase, resulting in financial losses of $13 billion per year, according to the World Bank.

Polluted air and dust storms can have serious public health impacts, causing respiratory illnesses in addition to environmental damage. But, if the whole region is the victim of these storms, is it more bearable in some cities than in others?

Woman and daughter on the street during a heavy sandstorm in Dubai.
A strong sandstorm in Dubai. Photograph: Ali Haider/EPA

I’ve been back and forth between these two cities, and they are different in many ways. Greater Cairo is home to over 25 million people, making it the most populous city in the Middle East. The country has suffered from air pollution for decades, made worse by transport exhaust and industrial waste. Each year, two million people consult a doctor for respiratory health problems, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health.

Just a three-hour flight away is Dubai, home to 3.5 million people. Being one of the fastest growing economies has given the UAE government more opportunities to invest in building cleaner infrastructure. However, the air is still polluted as the PM2.5 concentration in Dubai is 116 times higher than the WHO recommended air quality value.

The difference is in the resources. Cairo wants to fix it. Egypt hosts COP27, the UN climate conference, and is working to reduce the frequency of dust storms. But the country’s social media reported a spate of downed trees in Cairo’s eastern neighborhoods, which the former environment minister confirmed and said essential to avoid “problems” with underground cables and pipes.

Sometimes it seems like dust storms are out of control when they hit the Middle East region, where many parts are desert. In the United Arab Emirates, authorities generally advise against driving during sandstorms. But how will people get around, given that the forecast is for more and more of these storms, with hotter summers by 2050, according to a 2017 report by the Emirates Wildlife Society ? This is expected to affect outdoor workers and increase health risks.

In Cairo, authorities are also issuing alerts to people with respiratory illnesses, the elderly and children during dust storms to avoid leaving their homes.

Both countries are destined to deal with this inevitable condition from time to time, but it is difficult to compare the infrastructure available to a developing country with the resources offered to an oil-rich Gulf state.

Cairo is charming, but hectic. The buildings are pressed against each other, almost to the point of suffocation. Walking its streets is one of my favorite activities. I prefer to spend my time commuting outside rather than in a stuffy vehicle. Wandering among the city’s nocturnal charms is best accompanied by a soundtrack from Umm Kulthum with electro shaabi. But, even though I love it, the air is far from fresh.

A sandstorm in Cairo.
“Orange weather” in Cairo. Photo: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Dubai doesn’t have the same rich and ramshackle street life. The air is more humid and the paths are not always designed for casual walks. My commute involves walking from my apartment building into a car and then into another air-conditioned tower in a city that’s perfectly equipped to weather dust storms. All buildings, towers, venues, malls and offices are air-conditioned. When we socialize in the evening, we meet indoors in indoor entertainment venues or cold shopping malls. In the United Arab Emirates, I have never seen life stop when a storm hits like it does in Cairo. Office work continues. It’s business as usual.

Both countries are striving to improve their air quality. The United Arab Emirates, which is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the risks of climate breakdown, is working with the World Health Organization’s Global Advisory Group on Air Pollution and Health to find solutions.

And in May, Egypt launched a 2050 strategy to address the climate crisis by reducing emissions, improving infrastructure to finance climate projects and preparing for adaptability to global warming. The country also announced plans in August to plant 100m of trees in more than 9,000 locations to double green space and reduce greenhouse gases.

The threat of climate degradation hangs over all countries. And yet, Cairo and Dubai experience it so differently. It is striking how the economic capacity of countries, even if they are in the same region, can affect efforts to prepare for global warming. It turns out that a sandstorm is not the same everywhere it occurs. The governments of the world make promises, but is it the actions that made a sandstorm in one city more bearable than the other? And even though the scale of the action needed may differ – comparing a city of 25 million people to another of 3.5 million – I always ask myself: what is the main factor, the economic capacity or the adaptation of the country to its climate?

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