'You can't breathe': life must go on even as sandstorms choke Iraqi cities

Recent storms have turned skies orange and coated cities with dust, as mounting environmental challenges continue to blight the country

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For Abdul-Illah Mohammed, the sandstorms that have been lashing Iraq since early April are the worst he can remember.

“I’m about 63 now and I have not seen such a wave of sandstorms before,” Mr Mohammed told The National as he tried to clear out the dirt that had blown inside his mobile phone shop in Baghdad's Salihiyah neighbourhood.

“Year after year, these storms are becoming more vicious and harmful.

“At some points, you are left with near-zero visibility so that you can’t see your hand and you can’t breathe even inside you house.”

Iraq is no stranger to sandstorms, but they have been much more frequent in recent years as the country reels under mounting environmental challenges.

The latest storm hit Baghdad and other cities in central and southern Iraq shortly after midnight on Thursday.

Fine, windblown dust turned the skies orange and covered everything, getting inside homes under doors and through windows.

The Iraqi Civil Defence Corps issued instructions to residents, urging them to stay indoors as much as possible and to be cautious when travelling through cities. A hotline has been set up for emergencies.

Authorities urged those with respiratory problems keep medicines handy and advised people to wear masks and sunglasses.

“Since last month, we have been removing old dust from our homes and businesses only to receive more the next day,” Mr Mohammed said, pouring water from a plastic tank on to the pavement to remove the thick, yellow dust.

Iraq is the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to the effects of climate change, the Ministry of Environment said, and faces a wide range of challenges made worse by water insecurity, mismanagement and man-made issues such as the illegal razing of agricultural areas to build houses.

Among the devastating consequences of rising temperatures are droughts and desertification.

Addressing the UN Global Climate Summit in November, Iraqi President Barham Salih said that desertification affects 39 per cent of the country.

Mr Salih added that 54 per cent of Iraq’s agricultural lands have been degraded mainly due to soil salinity caused by reduced water flow in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, a declining precipitation rate and sea level rises.

The Middle East and North Africa region is considered one of the dustiest areas in the world — largely due to its proximity to the Sahara and human activity, the World Bank said in a report published in January 2020.

Iraq, Sudan and Saudi Arabia were among the countries with the highest frequency of dust storms, the report said.

The report added that the highest concentration of dust sources in the region is found in northern Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers along the Syrian border.

Other dust sources in the region are also generally found in areas with extensive desert cover, low population density and sparse agriculture concentrated along river valleys.

“There are about three times as many natural dust sources as anthropogenic [coming from human activity] dust sources, however due to land use changes in the past few decades, anthropogenic sources have increased,” it said.

The report found that welfare losses from dust increased globally from $2.2 trillion in 1990 to $3.6tn in 2013.

In the Mena region, the costs are about $150 billion and more than 2.5 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) for most of its countries.

A man uses an oxygen mask at a hospital in Baghdad. Those with respiratory health problems are at risk during dust storms.  Reuters

Citing UN figures, the World Bank report showed that $13bn was lost every year in the Mena region due to dust storms. The biggest welfare losses were incurred by Egypt, Iran and Pakistan.

“Dust storm costs range from negative health impacts to reducing crop yields to lowering property values to steering talented workers away from polluted places,” it said.

In Iraq, sandstorms can last for days, causing low visibility that effects flights and local transport in addition to aggravating health problems.

But even blinding sandstorms are not enough to bring life in Iraq to a complete halt. Markets and shops largely stay open while police continue to man checkpoints and direct traffic.

Traffic policeman Alaa Hussein Ali wore a mask and glasses as he directed cars through a busy intersection in Baghdad.

Car accidents normally increase by 20 to 30 per cent during sandstorms, he said.

“It’s tough, but this is our duty and we are used to this weather.”

Updated: May 06, 2022, 7:12 AM