A heavy sandstorm in Iraq, the latest of what Iraqis say is an unprecedented number to hit the country in recent weeks, halted flights at Baghdad International Airport and closed some state schools and offices on Monday.
Authorities in Baghdad, including the Education Ministry, declared a day off for local government institutions with the exception of health services. Hundreds of people across the capital and in southern cities went to hospitals complaining of breathing difficulties, medical officials said.
Baghdad International Airport said in a statement it was closing its airspace and halting all flights until further notice because of low visibility.
At least one sandstorm a week has hit Iraq in the past few weeks in what Iraqis say is the worst such spate in living memory.
“It's every three or four days now,” said taxi driver Ahmed Zaman, 23. “It's clearly a result of climate change and lack of rain, whenever there's wind it just kicks up dust and sand.”
In Baghdad and southern Iraqi cities, a red haze of dust and sand reduced visibility to a few hundred metres.
“We've had 75 cases of people with respiratory problems,” said Ihsan Mawlood, an accident and emergency doctor in a Baghdad hospital. “We're treating patients with oxygen machines if necessary.”
It is the eighth dust storm since the middle of April to hit Iraq, which has been hurt by soil degradation, intense droughts and low rainfall linked to climate change.
This month, a dust storm led to the death of one person while 5,000 others had to be taken to hospital for treatment of respiratory complaints.
Poor visibility closes airports
On Monday, a thick cloud of dust enveloped Baghdad in an orange glow and blanketed many other cities, including the Shiite shrine city of Najaf to the south, and Sulaimaniyah, in the northern Kurdish autonomous region, AFP correspondents said.
Sand covered roofs, cars and crept into homes.
Visibility at Baghdad airport dropped to 300 metres, forcing its closure, state-run INA news agency reported.
Airports in Najaf and Sulaimaniyah were also closed for the day, the agency said.
Authorities in seven of Iraq's 18 provinces, including Baghdad, ordered government offices to close.
Health services remained open, however, as authorities said that the most at risk were the elderly and people suffering from chronic respiratory diseases and heart ailments.
Schools nationwide were closed and end-of-year exams postponed until Tuesday. Universities also delayed exams.
The sandstorm was expected to dissipate by Monday evening, weather services said.
The Middle East has always been battered by dust and sandstorms but they have become more frequent and intense in recent years.
The trend has been associated with overuse of river water, more dams, overgrazing and deforestation.
Iraq is rich in oil and is known in Arabic as the land of the two rivers – in reference to the Tigris and Euphrates.
The supply of water has been declining for years, and Iraq is classified by the UN as one of the world's five countries most vulnerable to climate change and desertification.
In April, an Environment Ministry official said that Iraq could face “272 days of dust” a year over the next two decades.