Sandstorm Sweeps Through Iraq, Thousands of People Hospitalized

More than 4,000 people were hospitalized while airports, schools and offices across Iraq were closed as the sandstorm hit.

Iraq today experienced its eighth sandstorm since mid-April: A thick cloud of dust turned the capital Baghdad orange and hit other cities like Najaf in the south and Sulaimaniyah in the north.

Yellow sand, red sand covered roofs and cars even sneaked into the house. Authorities in the capital Baghdad and seven of the country’s 18 provinces had to order government offices to close. However, medical facilities are still open to support people.

A motorcyclist rides in the early morning of May 16 as a sandstorm hits the capital Baghdad.  Photo: AFP

A motorcyclist rides through the streets of Baghdad as a sandstorm sweeps through today. Picture: AFP

State news agency INA said the storm reduced visibility to 300 meters at Baghdad airport, forcing authorities to close airspace and halt all flights. The airports in Najaf and Sulaimaniyah were also closed for the day.

Schools closed across Iraq, final exams postponed until tomorrow. The storm is expected to clear by the evening of May 16th.

At least 4,000 people have been hospitalized with breathing difficulties, Iraqi Health Ministry spokesman Seif al-Badr said. About 20 patients, mostly elderly men, are being treated at Baghdad’s Sheikh Zayed Hospital. Among them Hadi Saada, 70, who is lying on his side in intensive care and wearing an oxygen mask.

“This is the third time my father has been hospitalized since the sandstorm began in mid-April,” his son Mohammed Saada said.

The latest storm killed one person and hospitalized more than 5,000 with respiratory illnesses.

The Middle East region experiences sandstorms on a regular basis, but these have become more frequent and intense over the years. The overuse of river water, dams, overgrazing and deforestation are assumed to be the causes.

Natural water resources have been declining for many years, making Iraq one of the countries most affected by climate change and desertification. In April, an Environment Ministry official warned that Iraq could face “272 days of sandstorms per year” for the next two decades.

Hong Hanh (Corresponding AFP)