It’s still not raining this spring after hardly any rain all winter, so I thought it best I give my bone dry garden a decent soak. I noticed the new neighbor, a blue bowl in his hand, lavishing soapy water on his car.The sky cloudy, we both heard the distant thunder, both dismissed rain as a possibility. Menacing thunder echoed again, the air tense, hot and dry –I’ve never heard thunder in a dust storm, I realized. When the heavy drops fell, his effort to shine his car had only make the damp dust stand out more. A moment after it passed, I’d noticed the brown drops weren’t wet anymore. They laid gritty on the tables and crunchy under foot. It’s not just dry because it hasn’t rained, but doubly dry because this dust coats the new leaves of the trees and spring flowers, wicking the moisture away.
Headlines featuring the NASA study of the Levant drought are as conspicuous as Cyprus’ increasing dust storms. Warnings in the papers and on the radio for people who have breathing difficulties, the young and elderly to stay indoors aren’t necessary because it’s obvious we’re under a fog of dust. My headache and my neighbor’s sneezing, the absence of the sounds of children playing-and our itching red eyes are all unavoidable indicators that fine particles of hazardous dust are upon us, yet again. Flights were delayed last week when a soupy thick dust fog swept in from the Sahara reducing visibility. The sea is simply cloaked;a fine sheen in the atmosphere softens views of the nearby mountains. The results of NASA’s study of the last drought, the one lasting from 1998 till 2012 are just being analyzed. As we take this in, a new drought seems to begin.
Using data from tree rings, NASA had been able to trace back 900 years, explaining that from 1100 until 21012 the Eastern Mediterranean was 50% drier than it’d been at its driest periods. I know, from reading Cypriot history that there were periods of three years, two hundred or so years ago, when it didn’t rain at all for over a year, here, so I’m amazed to hear that-when we are at least getting some winter precipitation, on average, it’s drier.
Prince Charles pointed out last November that the drought in Syria helped contribute to the war, there. When the land dried and crops failed, over a million Syrians left their farms and crowed cities already flooded with refugees from the Iraq invasion. The circular effect of war and water shortage rotates out to the edges of the region where oil fields dry the lands they pump from. Fresh water wells are increasingly valued higher than oil wells in the Middle East. Water for the fields all across the region is being pumped up from deeper below ground, so early this year, I note. Weeds are already brown just a few weeks into spring, and it’s warmer very early, we all agree, noting how we seem to have skipped winter this year. There’s a daily mention of the drying trend, or a discussion about the dust. A man in his late 60’s commented this morning that he doesn’t recall dust storms like this from his childhood in the northern Karpasia mountain range. I recall visiting the place he lived as particularly beautiful with green fields against azure sea- recalling when I was a child, how the views to Turkey were sharpest there. It seemed as if the Mediterranean were a vast lake, that you could nearly swim across. We who have such memories of clearer air agree that the once crystalline visibility hasn’t been seen for decades.
Somewhere beyond the sea, near the Sahara, lands never used before are being turned by tractors, kicking up clouds of dust that spiral high above and move out over the Mediterranean Sea, in Syria bombs send particles into the atmosphere that combine with the dust and all over the Eastern Mediterranean, air currents shift, bringing less water, more arid wind. I caught as much of the last winter rain in a water barrel as I could and I’ll haul buckets of it into my parched garden today, doling it out cautiously. It’s ironic, the sound of tourists splashing in the swimming pool of the holiday home nearby.