Hundreds of Iraqis hospitalized as sandstorm covers the country | Iraq

Hundreds of Iraqis were taken to hospitals with respiratory problems and Baghdad airport suspended flights for several hours as a dense sandstorm covered the country, the fifth in a month in Iraq.

Iraqi state media reported that most of the patients were experiencing respiratory problems as clinics in the north and west of the country struggled to keep up with the influx. Authorities urged citizens to stay in their homes.

The Iraqis woke up to an ocher sky – and a thick blanket of dust covered the streets and buildings with an orange film. Visibility was low and drivers kept their headlights on to see the road.

Flights scheduled to depart overnight and Thursday morning were postponed. They started again until the afternoon, when the dust started to clear.

Iraq is prone to seasonal sandstorms, a kind of dust storm in desert areas, but experts and officials are worried about their frequency in recent years, which they say is exacerbated by low rainfall, desertification and climate change.

Citizens affected by the sandstorm are being treated at Sheikh Zayed Hospital. Photo: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

However, Azzam Alwash, head of the non-profit organization Nature Iraq, warned that “climate change alone does not give the full picture” and that improper agricultural practices and poor water management had contributed to the problems.

“Climate change has become a very convenient excuse for officials to avoid responsibility for not taking action for the last 20 to 40 years,” he said.

Desertification, resulting from old irrigation practices dating back to the Sumerian era, and rising water salinity are also factors, he said. “These are policy issues.”

The World Bank has warned that Iraq could face a 20% reduction in water resources by 2050.

Issa al-Fayad, an environment ministry official, said Iraq could face 272 days of sandstorms a year for decades to come.

At least 700 people have sought medical help in Iraq’s western Anbar province and dozens more in Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Najaf provinces, state television said.

At Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Baghdad, people lined up outside the emergency room and staff were provided with more medicine as weather forecasts predicted storms would continue throughout May.

Ayat Haitham, a nurse, was busy treating patients, but also tried to reassure them that all the drugs used to treat respiratory problems, as well as oxygen, were “available in large quantities.”

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