Sandstorm halts flights, closes schools, hospitalizes 4,000

A massive sandstorm hit Iraq on Monday, forcing daily life in Baghdad to shut down and causing breathing difficulties for at least 4,000 people who sought medical treatment in hospitals across the country, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported.

“At least 4,000 people were admitted to hospital who needed treatment for breathing difficulties,” Iraqi Health Ministry spokesman Seif al-Badr told AFP on May 16.

AFP correspondents in Iraq reported on Monday that thick layers of orange dust were covering buildings and entering some cities in the country, including central Baghdad (the national capital), southern Najaf (a Shi’ite shrine city) and northern from Sulaimaniyah (in the Kurdistan region). ).

Iraq’s federal government ordered all schools and state offices in Baghdad to close their doors on May 16. Baghdad International Airport closed its airspace and grounded all flights on Monday due to poor visibility in the area, which was reportedly “only a few hundred feet away”, according to Reuters. Outside of Baghdad, six additional provinces also ordered the closure of their public businesses on Monday.

The May 16 sandstorm in Iraq was the eighth such storm since mid-April. An earlier dust storm in Iraq on May 5 caused one death and hospitalized at least 5,000 people seeking treatment for respiratory illnesses.

The Iraqi Meteorological Authority said in early May that the country was “under a North African depression, known locally as ‘khamasin.’” This regular weather event is an established natural phenomenon that affects sections of West Asia in the spring, including Iraq. The period of low air pressure usually lasts about 50 consecutive days. The word khamasin means “fifty” in Arabic and refers to the average duration of the wind storm.

“The Middle East has always been hit by dust and sand storms, but they have become more frequent and intense in recent years,” AFP noted on Monday.

“The trend has been associated with overuse of river water, more dams, overgrazing and deforestation,” according to the news agency.

“In April, an Environment Ministry official warned that Iraq could face ‘272 days of dust’ a year for the next two decades,” AFP noted.

Iraq’s Environment Ministry said at the time that the effects of the khamaseens could be buffered “by increasing plant cover and creating forests that act as windbreaks.”

Fine dust particles can cause various health complications such as asthma and cardiovascular diseases. High winds associated with dust storms often stir up bacteria, viruses, pesticides, and other toxins that may already be present in an affected environment, causing harm to those who inhale the substances.

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