Iraqi merchants struggle on amid series of strong sandstorms

Baghdad, May 17 (BNA) The thick layer of dust that covered the sky did not prevent Muhammad Ghalib from walking to work in the main commercial district of Baghdad today, Monday, in the latest series of severe sandstorms that swept Iraq.

Dust enveloped his eyelashes with an orange shade. He arrived at four in the morning, the height of the storm, and sat outside his street-side stall selling household goods at the capital’s Shorja market. He said, “Life goes on.”

Ghalib was among the capital’s traders who did not heed the public’s warnings on Monday to stay at home due to bad weather, and he regrets the financial losses and hardships amid the ongoing economic problems. The Ministry of Health reported that there were at least 1,700 cases of acute respiratory illness in Baghdad on Monday due to the storm.

Officials said there have been at least eight sandstorms in Iraq since April. They have taken thousands of Iraqis to hospitals with severe breathing difficulties and at least one person has died, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Health, which has declared a state of emergency.

A sandstorm on Monday killed two people in Deir Ezzor province in neighboring eastern Syria along the border with Iraq, according to the official Syrian News Agency (SANA). The agency said that hundreds of people were taken to hospitals after suffering from breathing problems, adding that the dead are a father and his son in Deir Ezzor.

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Sham FM radio reported the martyrdom of a young man in the village of Al-Harijia, north of Deir ez-Zor.

Dust storms occur seasonally in Iraq, but their frequency this year has alarmed experts who blame drought, rapid desertification and climate change.

Today, Monday, the Governor of Baghdad, Muhammad Jaber Al-Atta, suspended working hours in the governorate, with all departments, except for the Ministry of Health, temporarily closed. Also, the governorates of Wasit, Diwaniyah and Babil announced, today, Monday, an official holiday due to the severity of the dust storm.

The Ministry of Health said that in the last major sandstorm on May 5, one person was killed in Iraq and 5,000 people were taken to hospitals. On Monday, the ministry’s spokesman, Saif Al-Badr, said that Iraqi medical facilities are on alert.

Flights have been suspended at Baghdad, Najaf and Sulaymaniyah airports due to poor visibility.

Climate activists blamed the Iraqi government’s inaction and poor water management policies for the increased sandstorms. This phenomenon is expected to become more frequent amid a record drop in rainfall and higher summer temperatures.

Abu Dalal, the cashier at a restaurant in Baghdad’s Karrada district, blamed the government for not prioritizing green spaces around the capital to catch the seasonal dust waves.

Issa Fayyad, a senior official at the Ministry of Environment, said the government is struggling to tackle desertification across vast tracts of farmland due to declining water reserves, which are down 50% from last year. The Iraqi government has blamed dam projects in Turkey and Iran for limiting the flow of rivers into Iraq.

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“That’s why we can only divert water to irrigate 50 percent of farmland this year,” he told The Associated Press, leaving the rest drier and more prone to sandstorms. “We had to prioritize food security with the resources we had,” he said.

In the capital, Iraqis are learning to adapt under a sepia sky. Many on the street wore surgical masks. “We have no choice,” Ghalib said, dusting off the dishcloths hanging outside his booth. After a few minutes, he did it again.

Nearby, Ahmed Seddiqi lamented the dwindling business. “There is no one around, and it hurts us a lot.”

But customers are still lining up outside the Abed Sultan Restaurant, along Al Rasheed Street. Chewing on rice bowls, his customers joked that the dust was an extra seasoning.

Dust covered fruits sold in vegetable markets. Sajid Hamid is an employee of one of them wiping apples and apricots with a tissue.

“People still have to eat,” he said.


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