RIYADH (AFP) – Sandstorms across the
Middle East have delayed flights, closed schools and hospitalized thousands -- a phenomenon experts say could worsen as climate change warps regional weather patterns.
Saudi Arabia on Tuesday became the latest country blanketed with dust that slowed traffic and made iconic towers in the capital difficult to see from more than a few hundred meters away.
Electronic signs along Riyadh’s highways warned drivers to reduce their speed because of the lower visibility, even as life largely went on as usual in the kingdom.
The national meteorology center predicted that “surface dusty winds” originating in the east and bringing a thick grey haze would continue west towards the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Other countries have been grappling with the problem for longer. Neighboring Iraq has experienced eight sandstorms since mid-April, fuelled by soil degradation, intense droughts and low rainfall linked to climate change.
The country’s latest sandstorm on Monday enveloped the capital Baghdad in an orange glow, sent at least 4,000 people to hospital with breathing problems and led to the closure of airports, schools and public offices across the country.
Iran announced that it, too, was closing government offices and schools Tuesday, citing “unhealthy weather” conditions and sandstorms.
In Kuwait, meanwhile, air traffic at the main airport was suspended for an hour and a half due to a dust storm Monday, and marine traffic in all three ports remained suspended as of Tuesday afternoon.
Kuwait’s ministry of education said classes were suspended on Tuesday but would resume the following day.
The Middle East has always been battered by dust and sandstorms, but they have become more frequent and intense in recent years.
The trend is associated with overgrazing and deforestation, overuse of river water and more dams.
Unseasonable masses of dry, cold air help explain the recent proliferation of sandstorms in eastern Syria and Iraq and “their transmission to the Arabian Peninsula”, Hassan Abdallah from the WASM meteorological centre in Jordan told AFP.
Meanwhile, hundreds of cases of suffocation have been reported in some northern Syrian provinces, especially Dayr al-Zawr and Raqqa. The storm was described by the residents of the area as unprecedented due to its severity and the disastrous effects it caused.
Images obtained from social media show the effects of the damage to a region in north of Dayr al-Zawr.