Thousands suffer as the latest severe sandstorm spreads across Iraq

One person died in Iraq and more than 5,000 were treated in hospitals Thursday for respiratory ailments from a sand stormthe seventh in a month, the health ministry said.

Dust storms have increased dramatically in frequency in Iraq in recent years, driven by land degradation and an intense drought aggravated by climate change, with average temperatures rising and significantly lower rainfall.

Residents of six of Iraq’s 18 provinces, including Baghdad and the vast western region of Al-Anbar, have once again awakened to a thick cloud of dust covering the sky.

As the storm hit Iraq, it enveloped the capital Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf in ghostly orange clouds of choking dust.

“One death has been recorded in Baghdad” and hospitals “have so far received no fewer than 5,000 cases,” health ministry spokesman Seif al-Badr said in a statement.

Most affected are people suffering from “chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma” and the elderly who suffer in particular from heart ailments, he said.

Badr added that most had since been discharged and most of the cases were “medium or low intensity”.

Dust and sandstorms have always occurred in the Middle East, but in recent years they have become more frequent and intense, a trend that has been associated with overuse of river water, more dams, overgrazing and deforestation.

The fine dust particles can cause health problems such as asthma and cardiovascular ailments and also spread bacteria and viruses as well as pesticides and other toxins.

Authorities in the provinces of Al-Anbar and Kirkuk, north of the capital, urged people “not to leave their homes,” the official INA news agency said.

Storms are expected to become more intense as climate change worsens as higher temperatures and more erratic rainfall will dry the earth faster and accelerate desertification.

Sandstorms also cause economic damage by reducing visibility, sometimes close to freezing, closing airports and highways, and causing damage to buildings, vegetation and solar panels.

– ‘272 days of dust’ –

Hospitals in Al-Anbar province have welcomed more than 700 patients with breathing difficulties, said Anas Qais, a health official quoted by INA.

The central province of Salaheddin has reported more than 300 cases, while Diwaniya and Najaf province, south of Baghdad, have each recorded about 100 cases, the news agency added.

Oil-rich Iraq, despite its mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is ranked as one of the five countries most vulnerable to climate change and desertification.

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Scientists say climate change amplifies droughts and that their intensity and frequency in turn threaten food security. Experts said these factors threaten to bring social and economic disaster to the war-torn country.

In November, the World Bank warned that Iraq, a country of 41 million people, could experience a 20% decline in water resources by 2050 due to climate change.

The United Nations says about a third of the Iraqi population now lives in poverty.

The effects of low rainfall have been exacerbated by declining levels in the Tigris and Euphrates due to upstream dams in neighboring Iran and Turkey.

In early April, a government official warned Iraq could face “272 days of dust” per year over the next few decades.

The environment ministry said the meteorological phenomenon could be addressed “by increasing the vegetation cover and creating forests that act as windbreaks”.