More and more days in the year have dangerous levels of dust, but it is not fair to blame the Sahara alone

Government-issued dust warnings seem to have become par for the course in Cyprus over the last few years. We are usually told that only vulnerable groups should take precautions, while the rest of us grumble a little but largely get on with it, only inconvenienced by dusty cars and windows, and for some a bit of a Whoopi Goldberg voice effect.

The usual explanation offered is that the dust arrives from abroad, generally the Sahara, and being periodically covered in dust while losing visibility to the point where the sun is dimmed, is simply the price we have to pay for the island’s geographic location and the unfairly glorious weather we are blessed with the rest of the year.

A much bigger story, however, is hidden under the somewhat innocuous wording of ‘dust in the air,’ and if we dig just a little deeper, the seasonal Whoopi voice and dusty cars begin to look a little too ‘first-world-problem’.

It is fairly common knowledge that the dust episodes have been increasing in frequency and duration, a fact confirmed by director of the department of meteorology Kleanthis Nicolaides. April alone recorded 20 days with dust above safe levels, in other words dangerous air was the norm for two-thirds of the month.

Doctors in Cyprus emphatically confirm the correlation between dust episodes and upticks in hospitalisations and deaths and the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) in a recent study cited toxicological and epidemiological research that has consistently demonstrated the negative impact of dust on cardiorespiratory health.

In response to these alarming facts, experts pop up decrying the usual ‘bad boys’ of air pollution: global warming, climate change, fossil-fuels, greenhouse gases, appliances such as heaters, petrol-driven cars, diesel engines, wood-burning fireplaces… These are the known criminals whose toxic by-products produce dust particles as well as cause desertification through slow roasting our Earth.

A more sprightly response to the situation, has been the issuing at 10-minute intervals, of updates through the ‘Air Quality Cyprus’ app detailing particle size and exact concentrations. One gets the impression that the met service is pleased-as-punch with its measuring and recording toys and the shiny new upgrades anticipated through the recently signed Memorandum of Understanding with their Israeli counterparts.

Meanwhile, the Cyprus Institute is proudly lauded as “a regional hub for climate change research” due to the fact that we – and our close neighbours – will be among the most hard whacked. In fact, according to the UN Environment programme the Mediterranean region is warming 20 per cent faster than the global average.

We are left with a sense that climate change and mitigation are things that happen very far away, physically and societally, we have to ‘learn to live’ with yet another man-made disaster beyond our control.

This response is understandable, as no mention is ever made and very little awareness is encouraged about other local activities that contribute significantly to dust levels in Cyprus and elsewhere, and which, at the very least, can be said to exacerbate our seasonal ‘African air’ problem.

To get a real grip on what we are experiencing when we look through our grimy windows at the murky haze where our mountains used to be, we need to work backwards a little, to connect a few dots. And the starting point of all the dots is a grain of soil.

When was the last time most of us can claim to have given much thought to soil? Yet soil impoverishment and its resultant desertification are the ground zero of our ‘dust in the air’. Soil is not only what we live on top of, it is, crucially, where our food comes from. Without soil, us humans would starve, so perhaps we can afford a few minutes to burrow our minds into what it is and how it works.

To understand soil, it is important to know that soil is composed of topsoil and layers beneath. Without getting too technical, healthy topsoil is richly composed of organic matter.

Organic matter contributes to food productivity through its effect on the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the soil. Soil impoverishment happens when this organic content is depleted and soil productivity decreases as a result.

Another thing that happens when organic matter is lost is that soil loses its structure – in other words, it turns to dust. Healthy soil acts as a sponge for retaining water. Soil that has turned to dust can no longer hold water, nor can it host the micro-organisms necessary for healthy plant growth. See where this is going?

But the depressing cascade of events doesn’t end here. When less water soaks into the soil more runs off when it rains, carrying topsoil away. And run-off leads to, among other undesirable things, more… dust.

The recent winter deluge which brought many of us a much-needed sense of small-thing joy, ‘At least,’ we could tell each other, ‘the summer’s water supply is sorted!’ begins to take on a bit of an edge too… more water is only good in as far as the soil has the capacity to absorb it and in as far as underground aquifers can be replenished.

Once we see the picture of how soil and dust are interlinked, we can never un-see it. The seasonal phenomenon of haze and warnings, which many assume apply mostly to asthmatics, begin to look less episodic and more like a nightmare.

Head of the School of Environmental Studies of KES College and an expert on Terrestrial Agro/Ecosystem Management (in other words, soil) Professor Demetris Sarris said that most of the dust does indeed come from the Sahara, but that is not the end of the story for Cyprus. One problem is that due to the desertification of Africa the Sahara desert is expanding northwards. This is happening not only because of climate change, but also because of poor soil management and poor agricultural practices. And at least some of these are happening in our own backyard.

Desertification can be caused by climate change, but also by leaving soil ‘naked’, that is, having no plant matter of any sort, referred to as groundcover, protecting it. While some may see this as a ‘chicken-and-egg’ problem, the fact remains that if we find ways to cover the soil, we can at least ameliorate the situation.

So, rather than throw our hands up, what can we do to mitigate desertification here in Cyprus? Sarris has one idea to start with: local communities, he says, should invest in communal wood-chippers and shredders, something that does not seem like a particularly audacious undertaking to any person reasonably fond of seeing the sun and breathing.

feature iole dust blocking the view in nicosia

Dust blocking the view in Nicosia.

Currently, Sarris explained, farmers do not receive government subsidies when their land lies uncultivated. Naked soil looks cultivated, so farmers are incentivised to burn natural plant cover and till the soil so that it clearly looks like cultivated land.

Instead, Sarris suggested, the practice of keeping the ground covered with wild plants, wood chips or other shredded organic material, known as mulching, which locks in moisture and simultaneously contributes to soil health in other ways, could be encouraged. Farmer subsidies, for example, could be tied not simply to fields lying fallow but to those fields that are also left with natural ground cover or mulched.

Farmers already have plenty of organic matter available through pruning and harvesting which is traditionally burned or is required to be driven to designated “green spots” something many farmers view as a hassle, one additional job to add to an already heavy load. Enter community wood-chippers and shredders. Farmers could take their pruned and harvested plant material a short distance to a local mulching centre, get it chipped and shredded and return with it to cover their fields.

What about fire hazard, aren’t fields that are left with wild vegetation on them in the summer months more prone to fires?

Professor Sarris said not necessarily but another alternative, is that fields could be mowed instead of aggressively tilled, and the cuttings left in place to compost and fertilise the soil, a practice fondly known in sustainable growing circles, as “chop and drop”. Because this practice keeps moisture in the ground, even if a fire does break out, it would move quite slowly.

Yet another cheap solution would be to use fire-resistant plants as hedging, such as the humble prickly pear, which was traditionally used for this purpose, and has the added advantage of creating an excellent windbreak.

What is clear, is that increased dust levels and frequency are not something anyone can afford to take lightly, or from which we should simply wait for experts to save us.

Those of us who are growers can begin, even on a small scale, to engage in soil-protection practices, as much as our current understanding allows, learning and improving as we go. And those of us who eat, which is all of us, can perhaps make the effort to question more consciously the growing practices behind our meals.

Next time you are about to take a bite of potato, pause for just a moment to imagine the soil that used to cling to it and if you happen to be a carnivore, pause to imagine the soil sticking to the roots of the wheat on which the souvlaki on your skewer was fed.

As professor Sarris said, “You cannot say ‘I love this land, I love Cyprus,’ and then not love and look after the soil. The soil is the land. This is what we need to realise.”