BAGHDAD (AP) – A sandstorm blanketed parts of the Middle East including Iraq, Syria and Iran on Monday, sending people to hospitals and disrupting flights in some places.
It was the latest in a series of unprecedented, nearly back-to-back sandstorms this year that have confused local residents and alarmed experts and officials who blame climate change and poor government regulation.
From Riyadh to Tehran, bright orange skies and a thick veil of sand signaled another stormy day on Monday. Sandstorms are typical in late spring and summer, spurred by seasonal winds. But this year they’ve performed in Iraq almost every week since March.
Iraqi authorities declared the day a national holiday and urged government employees and residents to stay home in anticipation of the 10th storm to hit the country in the past two months. The Department of Health has stockpiled oxygen canisters at facilities in hard-hit areas, according to a statement.
The storms have sent thousands to hospitals and claimed at least one death in Iraq and three in eastern Syria.
“It’s a regional problem, but every country has a different level of vulnerability and weakness,” said Jaafar Jotheri, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Baghdad.
In Syria, medical departments were put on alert as the sandstorm hit the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq, Syrian state TV said. Earlier this month, a similar storm in the region killed at least three people and hospitalized hundreds with breathing problems.
dr Bashar Shouaybi, head of the Department of Health’s office in Deir el-Zour, told state television that hospitals are prepared and ambulances are on standby. He said they have acquired an additional 850 oxygen tanks and medicines needed to deal with patients with asthma.
Heavy dust storms also hit parts of Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia this month.
For the second time this month, Kuwait International Airport suspended all flights on Monday due to dust. The video showed largely empty streets with poor visibility.
The Saudi Arabian Meteorological Association reported that visibility on roads in Riyadh, the capital, would drop to zero this week. Officials warned motorists to drive slowly. Emergency rooms across the city were flooded this month with 1,285 patients complaining they couldn’t breathe properly.
Iran closed schools and government offices in the capital Tehran last week because of a sandstorm that swept across the country. The southwestern desert region of Khuzestan was hardest hit, where over 800 people were treated for respiratory problems. Dozens of flights from western Iran have been canceled or delayed.
Blame for the dust storms and heavy air pollution has mounted, with a prominent environmental expert telling local media that climate change, drought and government mismanagement of water resources are to blame for the increase in sandstorms. Iran has drained its wetlands for agriculture – a common practice known to produce dust in the region.
Alireza Shariat, the head of an association of Iranian water engineers, told Iran’s semi-official news agency ILNA last month that he expects sweeping dust storms to become an “annual springtime phenomenon” unlike anything Iran has seen before.
In Iraq, desertification, exacerbated by record-low rainfall, is contributing to the intensity of the storms, geoarchaeologist Jotheri said. In a low-lying country with many desert regions, the impact is almost double, he said.
“Because of 17 years of mismanagement of water and urbanization, Iraq has lost more than two-thirds of its green space,” he said. “That’s why Iraqis complain more than their neighbors about the sandstorms in their areas.”
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