Sandstorm suspends flights, many Iraqis struggle to breathe

A man walks through a sand storm in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, May 5, 2022. Hundreds of Iraqis with respiratory problems went to hospitals with flights suspended on Thursday as Iraqis awoke to a fifth sand storm to engulf the country within a month. (AP Photo/Ali Abdul Hassan)
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Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Hundreds of Iraqis rushed to hospitals with breathing problems Thursday and the 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-colored 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, an airport official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

Flights resumed by 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-low rainfall, desertification and climate change.

However, Azzam Alwash, head of the Nature Iraq non-profit organization, warned that “climate change alone doesn’t give the whole picture” and that inappropriate farming practices and mismanagement of water resources have 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 meds 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.”