By SAMYA KULLAB
BAGHDAD (AP) — A sandstorm blanketed parts of the Middle East, including Iraq, Syria and Iran, on Monday, sending people to hospitals and disrupting flights in some places.
It was the latest in a series of near-consecutive sandstorms unprecedented this year that have baffled residents and alarmed experts and officials, who blame climate change and poor government regulations.
From Riyadh to Tehran, bright orange skies and a thick shroud of sand signaled another stormy day on Monday. Sandstorms are typical in late spring and summer, boosted by seasonal winds. But this year they have performed almost weekly in Iraq since March.
Iraqi authorities have declared the national holiday, urging government workers and residents to stay home ahead of the 10th storm to hit the country in the past two months. The Health Ministry has stockpiled oxygen canisters at facilities in hard-hit areas, a statement said.
The storms sent thousands to hospitals and left at least one dead in Iraq and three in eastern Syria.
“It’s a regional problem but each country has a different degree of vulnerability and weakness,” said Jaafar Jotheri, a geoarchaeologist at Al-Qadisiyah University in Baghdad.
In Syria, medical services were put on alert when the sandstorm hit the eastern province of Deir el-Zour which borders Iraq, Syrian state television said. Earlier this month, a similar storm in the region claimed at least three lives and hundreds were hospitalized with respiratory problems.
Dr Bashar Shouaybi, head of the health ministry office in Deir el-Zour, told state television that hospitals were ready and ambulances were on standby. He said they had acquired 850 additional oxygen tanks and the drugs needed to treat asthma patients.
Severe sandstorms also covered parts of Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia this month.
For the second time this month, Kuwait International Airport suspended all flights Monday due to dust. The video showed largely empty streets with poor visibility.
The Saudi Meteorological Association reported that visibility would drop to zero on roads in Riyadh, the capital, this week. Authorities have warned drivers to go slow. The city’s emergency rooms have been inundated with 1,285 patients this month complaining of not being able to breathe properly.
Last week, Iran closed schools and government offices in the capital of Tehran following a sandstorm that swept across the country. It hit hardest in the country’s southwestern desert region of Khuzestan, where more than 800 people sought treatment for breathing difficulties. Dozens of flights from western Iran have been canceled or delayed.
Blame for dust storms and heavy air pollution has grown, with a leading environmental scientist telling local media that climate change, drought and government mismanagement of water resources are responsible for the increased sandstorms. Iran has drained its wetlands for agriculture – a common practice known to produce dust in the region.
Alireza Shariat, the head of an association of Iranian hydraulic engineers, told Iran’s semi-official ILNA news agency last month that he expected vast dust storms to become a “springtime phenomenon. annual” in a way that Iran has never seen before.
In Iraq, desertification exacerbated by record rainfall is adding to the intensity of the storms, said Jotheri, the geoarchaeologist. In a low-lying country with many desert regions, the impact is nearly double, he said.
“Due to 17 years of poor water management and urbanization, Iraq has lost more than two-thirds of its green cover,” he said. “That’s why Iraqis complain more than their neighbors about sandstorms in their regions.”
Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed.
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