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Iraqi merchants struggle on amid series of strong sandstorms

People navigate a street during a sandstorm in Baghdad, Iraq (Hadi Mizban/AP)
People navigate a street during a sandstorm in Baghdad, Iraq (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Iraqi merchants have said they have no choice but to adapt as the latest in an unrelenting series of intense sandstorms swept their country.

Many merchants and labourers did not heed government calls to stay home as another sandstorm hit Iraq on Monday.

Monday’s sandstorm killed two people in neighbouring Syria’s eastern province of Deir el-Zour along the border with Iraq, according to official news agency SANA.

The agency said hundreds of people were taken to hospital after suffering breathing problems, adding that the dead were a father and his son in Deir el-Zour.

A man pushes a cart during a sandstorm in Baghdad, Iraq
A man pushes a cart during a sandstorm in Baghdad, Iraq (Hadi Mizban/AP)

Sham FM radio reported that a young man suffocated in the village of Al-Harijia, north of Deir el-Zour.

Dust storms are a seasonal occurrence in Iraq but their frequency this year has alarmed experts, who blame drought, rapid desertification and climate change.

On Monday, Baghdad governor Mohammed Jaber al-Atta suspended working hours in the province, with all departments excluding the Health Ministry temporarily closed.

The provinces of Wasit, Diwaniyah and Babil also declared Monday a public holiday owing to the severity of the dust storm.

In the last major sandstorm on May 5, one person died in Iraq and 5,000 people were admitted to hospital, the Health Ministry said.

Ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr said on Monday that Iraq’s medical facilities were on alert.

Flights were suspended at Baghdad, Najaf and Sulaimaniyah airports due to low visibility.

Climate activists have blamed inaction by the Iraqi government and poor water management policies for the increase in sandstorms.

People walk on a street during a sandstorm in Baghdad, Iraq
People walk on a street during a sandstorm in Baghdad (Hadi Mizban/AP)

The phenomenon is expected to become more frequent amid record-low rainfall and rising summer temperatures.

Abu Dalal, a cashier at a restaurant in the Karada neighbourhood of Baghdad, blamed the government for not prioritising green spaces around the capital to capture the seasonal dust waves.

Essa Fayadh, a senior Environment Ministry official, said the government struggles to address desertification across vast swathes of agricultural land due to declining water reserves, which are down 50% from last year.

The Iraqi government has blamed dam projects in Turkey and Iran for limiting river flows into Iraq.

“For this reason we could only divert water to irrigate 50% of agricultural lands this year,” he told the Associated Press, enabling the remainder to become drier and susceptible to sandstorms.

“We had to prioritise food security with the resources we have,” he said.

In the capital, Iraqis are learning to adapt under a sepia sky.

Many on the street wore surgical masks.

A street vendor sells cigarettes during a sandstorm in Baghdad, Iraq
A street vendor sells cigarettes during a sandstorm in Baghdad (Hadi Mizban/AP)

“We have no choice,” Muhammed Ghalib said, beating the dust from the dish cloths hanging outside his stall.

A few minutes later, he does it again.

Nearby, Ahmed Saddi lamented the dwindling business.

“There is no-one, and that hurts (us) a lot.”

But customers still lined up outside Abid Sultan’s restaurant along Rasheed Street.

Munching on rice dishes, his patrons joked the dust was extra seasoning.

The dust covered the fruits being sold across vegetable markets.

Sajed Hamed, an employee in one, wiped apples and apricots with tissue.

“People still have to eat,” he said.