Hundreds of Iraqis have been taken to hospitals with breathing problems and Baghdad airport suspended flights for several hours as a thick sandstorm blanketed the country, the fifth to engulf Iraq within a month.
Iraqi state media said most of the patients suffered respiratory issues as clinics across the country’s north and west struggled to keep up with the influx. Authorities urged citizens to stay indoors.
Iraqis awoke to an ochre-coloured sky – and a thick blanket of dust covered the roads and buildings with an orange film. Visibility was low and drivers kept car headlights on to see the road.
Flights scheduled to depart overnight and on Thursday morning were postponed. They resumed by the afternoon, when the dust began to clear.
Iraq is prone to seasonal sandstorms, a type of dust storm in desert areas, but experts and officials are raising alarm over their frequency in recent years, which they say is exacerbated by record-low rainfall, desertification and climate change.
However, Azzam Alwash, head of the non-profit organisation Nature Iraq, warned that “climate change alone doesn’t give the whole picture” and that inappropriate farming practices and mismanagement of water resources had contributed to the problems.
“Climate change has become a very convenient excuse for officials to avoid responsibility for not taking action over the last 20 to 40 years,” he said.
Desertification, resulting from old irrigation practices dating back to the Sumerian age, and rising water salinity are also factors, he said. “These are policy issues.”
The World Bank has warned that Iraq could suffer a 20% drop in water resources by 2050.
Issa al-Fayad, an official with the environment ministry, said Iraq could face 272 days of sandstorms a year in the coming decades.
At least 700 people sought medical care in Iraq’s western province of Anbar, and dozens more in the provinces of Kirkuk, Salahaddin and Najaf, state TV reported.
At the Sheikh Zayed hospital in Baghdad, people lined up outside the emergency room and staff stocked up on more drugs as weather forecasts predicted the storms would continue throughout May.
Ayat Haitham, a nurse, was busy treating patients but also tried to reassure them that all the drugs used for treating breathing difficulties and also oxygen were “available in big quantities”.