Iraqi merchants struggle amid series of heavy sandstorms

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BAGHDAD – The thick layer of dust covering the sky did not deter Muhammed Ghalib from walking to work in Baghdad’s main commercial district on Monday, as the latest in a relentless series of intense sandstorms swept through Iraq.

The dust covered his eyelashes with an orange hue. He arrived at 4 a.m., at the height of the storm, and sat outside his stall near the street selling household items at the capital’s Shorja market. “Life goes on,” he says.

Ghalib was among traders in the capital who ignored public warnings on Monday to stay indoors due to poor weather conditions, lamenting financial losses and hardship amid ongoing economic difficulties. The Health Ministry said there were at least 1,700 cases of severe respiratory ailments in Baghdad on Monday due to the storm.

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

Monday’s sandstorm killed two people in the neighboring Syrian province of Deir el-Zour, along the border with Iraq, according to the official SANA news agency. The agency said hundreds of people had been taken to hospitals after suffering respiratory problems, adding that the dead were a father and son in Deir el-Zour.

Sham FM radio reported that a young man choked in the village of Al-Harijia north of Deir el-Zour.

Dust storms are a seasonal occurrence in Iraq, but their frequency this year has alarmed experts who blame drought, rapid desertification and climate change.

On Monday, Baghdad Governor Mohammed Jaber al-Atta suspended working hours in the province, with all departments except the health ministry temporarily closed. Wasit, Diwaniyah and Babil provinces also declared Monday a public holiday due to the severity of the dust storm.

In the last major sandstorm on May 5, one person died in Iraq and 5,000 people were hospitalized, the health ministry said. Ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr said Monday that Iraqi medical facilities were on high alert.

Flights were suspended at Baghdad, Najaf and Sulaimaniyah airports 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 should become more frequent in the context of record rainfall and rising summer temperatures.

Abu Dalal, a cashier at a restaurant in Baghdad’s Karada district, accused the government of not prioritizing green spaces around the capital to capture seasonal dust waves.

Essa Fayadh, a senior environment ministry official, said the government was struggling to combat desertification on large swaths of agricultural land due to dwindling water reserves, which had shrunk by 50 percent. compared to last year. The Iraqi government has accused dam projects in Turkey and Iran of limiting river flows to Iraq.

“Because of this, we could only divert water to irrigate 50% of farmland this year,” he told The Associated Press, allowing the rest to become drier and susceptible to sandstorms. “We had to prioritize food security with the resources we have,” he said.

In the capital, Iraqis learn to adapt under a sepia sky. Many on the street wore surgical masks. “We have no choice,” Ghalib said, beating the dust from the tea towels hanging outside his stall. A few minutes later, he starts again.

Nearby, Ahmed Saddi lamented the scarcity of business. “There is no one, and it (us) hurts a lot.”

But customers were still queuing outside Abid Sultan’s restaurant along Rasheed Street. Munching on rice dishes, his customers joked that the dust was added seasoning.

Dust covered fruit sold in vegetable markets. Sajed Hamed, an employee at one, wiped apples and apricots with a handkerchief.

“People still have to eat,” he said.

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