BAGHDAD – A thick layer of dust in the sky did not stop Mohammed Ghalib from walking to work in Baghdad’s main commercial district on Monday, the latest in a series of rampant sandstorms in Iraq.
Ghalib was among the businessmen in the capital who did not heed the public warning on Monday to stay indoors, lamenting the financial loss and hardship in the ongoing economic crisis due to bad weather.
Officials say there have been at least eight sandstorms in Iraq since April. They rushed thousands of Iraqis to hospitals with severe respiratory problems and at least one died, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which declared a state of emergency.
The state news agency SANA reported that Monday’s sandstorm killed two people on the Iraqi border in the neighboring eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor. The agency said more than a hundred people had been taken to hospital with respiratory problems, adding that the dead included a father and his son in Deir ez-Zor.
Sham FM radio reported that a young man suffocated in the village of Al-Harijia, north of Deir el-Zor.
Hurricanes are a seasonal event in Iraq, but this year their frequency has been alarmed by experts who have blamed drought, rapid desertification and climate change.
On Monday, Baghdad Governor Mohammed Jaber suspended work in al-Atta province, with all departments except the health ministry temporarily closed. The provinces of Wasit, Diwaniyah and Babylon also announced a public holiday on Monday due to the intensity of the dust storm.
In the latest major sandstorm on May 5, one died in Iraq and 5,000 were hospitalized, the health ministry said. A spokesman for the ministry, Saif al-Badr, said on Monday that medical facilities in Iraq were on high alert.
Flights to Baghdad, Najaf and Sulaimaniyah airports have been suspended due to low visibility.
Climate activists have blamed the Iraqi government’s inaction and poor water management policies for the increase in sandstorms. The phenomenon is expected to become more frequent between record-less rainfall and rising summer temperatures.
Abu Dalal, a cashier at a restaurant near Karada in Baghdad, blamed the government for not prioritizing green spaces around the capital to capture seasonal dust waves.
Essa Fayad, a senior official in the environment ministry, said the government was struggling to cope with desertification across a large area of agricultural land due to declining water reserves, which was 50% less than last year. The Iraqi government has blamed Turkey and Iran’s dam projects for limiting river flows in Iraq.
“That’s why we’ve only been able to divert water to irrigate 50% of the farmland this year,” he told The Associated Press. “We had to prioritize food security over our resources,” he said.
In the capital, Iraqis are learning to adapt to sepia under the sky. Many on the streets wore surgical masks. “We have no choice,” Ghalib said, dusting off the dishes hanging from the outside of his stall. A few minutes later, he did it again.
Nearby, Ahmed Saddi has expressed regret over the declining business. “No one, and it hurts (us) a lot.”
But customers lined up outside Abid Sultan’s restaurant on Rashed Street. His patrons joked about the rice dishes, saying the dust was extra spice.
Fruits sold throughout the vegetable market are covered in dust. Sajeed Hamed, one of the employees, wiped the apples and apricots with a tissue.
“People still have to eat,” he said.