Iraqis Choke Under a Blanket of Dust as Sandstorms Sweep the Country

An unrelenting spate of sandstorms in Iraq this year has grounded flights, blanketed cities and towns in orange dust and sent hundreds of Iraqis to hospitals for respiratory problems, according to Iraqi state media.

For millions of people across Iraq on Thursday, orange skies signaled yet another dusty day — the seventh such sandstorm in recent months.

Many Iraqis were wearing masks to help filter the air, but more than 5,000 people were treated for respiratory problems and one person died, according to Iraq’s health ministry.

The affected areas spanned Al-Anbar in the west and the central region of Najaf, according to the Iraqi News Agency, and officials cautioned people to stay indoors and to seek treatment for breathing difficulties. Video from Baghdad shared by the United Nations on Thursday showed empty streets and poor visibility.

Although it is difficult to directly link individual weather events with climate change, experts say it is one driver behind sandstorms that are growing in frequency and intensifying. And climate change will likely compound the challenges ahead for a country like Iraq, which is already facing water shortages after low rainfalls and increasing temperatures.

Twenty years ago, Iraq could expect about two sandstorms each year, said Professor Jaafar Jotheri, a geoarcheologist at the University of Al-Qadisiyah. This year, it is expected that about 20 sandstorms will hit Iraq, he said.

Visibility was so poor during a sandstorm this week that flights from the Baghdad and Najaf airports had to be grounded, according to the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority.

“It is a disaster,” Professor Jotheri said, adding that sandstorms were becoming a regular feature of TV weather forecasts in Iraq. The increase in sandstorms could cause respiratory problems, road accidents and changes to the economy — pushing people to consider migrating away from the country’s drier west, he said. “The sandstorms are changing the Iraqi way of life.”

The dust and sand that make up the storms are coming from deserts in Iraq, as well as from further afield in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, he said. The mismanagement of surface water and groundwater in those areas, along with disturbances in deserts from farming and the movement of people, had contributed to the problem, he added.

The country needs to change its management of desert areas and agriculture to blunt the impact of the storms, Professor Jotheri said, doing things like investing in more native vegetation and significantly reducing consumption of groundwater. Buildings also require upgrades to withstand the impact of sandstorms, he added.

The United Nations Environment Program said in 2016 that more than $13 billion in gross domestic product was being lost each year because of dust storms in the Middle East and North Africa.

Jane Arraf contributed reporting.

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