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Sandstorm suspends flights as many Iraqis struggle to breathe

A man walks through a sand storm in Baghdad, Iraq, on Thursday May 5 2022 (Ali Abdul Hassan/AP)
A man walks through a sand storm in Baghdad, Iraq, on Thursday May 5 2022 (Ali Abdul Hassan/AP)

Hundreds of Iraqis rushed to hospitals with breathing problems and Baghdad’s airport suspended flights for several hours as a thick sandstorm blanketed the country.

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-coloured sky and a thick blanket of dust covering roads and buildings with an orange film.

A police officer uses his radio in the storm
A police officer uses his radio in the storm (Ali Abdul Hassan/AP)

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 authorised 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 alarmed over their frequency in recent years, which they say is exacerbated by record-low rainfall, desertification and climate change.

Thursday’s was the fifth to engulf Iraq within a month.

Azzam Alwash, head of the Nature Iraq non-profit organisation, 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.

People walk through the sand-covered streets of Baghdad
People walk through the sand-covered streets of Baghdad (Ali Abdul Hassan/AP)

“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 A&E and staff stocked up on more medications as weather forecasts predicted the storms will continue throughout May.

Nurse Ayat Haitham was busy treating patients but also tried to reassure them that all the drugs used for treating breathing difficulties and oxygen are “available in big quantities”.