BAGHDAD (AP) — Hundreds of Iraqis rushed to hospitals Thursday with respiratory problems and Baghdad airport grounded flights for several hours as a thick sandstorm blanketed the country, the fifth to engulf Iraq in a month.
Iraqi state media said most of the patients were suffering from respiratory problems as clinics in the north and west of the country struggled to keep up with the influx. Authorities urged citizens to stay at home.
Iraqis woke up to ocher-colored skies and a thick layer of dust coating roads and buildings with an orange film. Visibility was low, and drivers kept their cars’ headlights on to see the road ahead.
Flights scheduled to leave overnight and Thursday morning were postponed, an airport official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Flights resumed in the afternoon, when the dust began to clear.
Iraq is prone to seasonal sandstorms, but experts and officials are raising alarm over their frequency in recent years, which they say is exacerbated by record rainfall, desertification and climate change.
However, Azzam Alwash, head of the non-profit organization Nature Iraq, warned that “climate change alone does not give the full picture” and that inappropriate agricultural practices and poor management of water resources have contributed to the problems.
“Climate change has become a very convenient excuse for officials to avoid responsibility for failing to take action over the last 20 to 40 years,” he said.
Desertification, the result of ancient irrigation practices dating back to the Sumerian era, and increased salinity of water 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 at the Environment Ministry, said Iraq could face 272 days of sandstorms a year for decades to come.
At least 700 people sought medical attention in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, and dozens more in the provinces of Kirkuk, Salahaddin and Najaf, state television reported.
At Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Baghdad, people lined up outside the emergency room and staff stocked up on more medicine as weather forecasts predicted storms would continue into May.
Ayat Haitham, a nurse, was busy treating the patients but also tried to assure them that all medicines used to treat breathing difficulties and also oxygen were “available in large quantities”.