Middle East sandstorms send scores to hospitals, cause disruptions


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, May 19 ------ 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 May 17 became the latest country blanketed with dust that slowed traffic and made iconic towers in the capital Riyadh difficult to see from more than a few hundred meters away. Emergency rooms in Riyadh hospitals received about 1,285 people suffering from respiratory problems over 24 hours as a result of the sandstorm, the state-run Al-Ekhbariya channel reported. 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 country's national meteorology center predicted that "surface dusty winds" originating in the east and bringing a thick grey haze would continue west toward 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, fueled by soil degradation, intense droughts and low rainfall linked to climate change. The country's latest sandstorm on May 16 enveloped the capital Baghdad in an orange glow, sent at least 4,000 people to the 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, citing "unhealthy weather" conditions and sandstorms. Average airborne concentration of the finest and most hazardous particles (PM2.5) was at 163 micrograms per cubic meter in the Iranian capital Tehran, according to a government website. That is more than six times the World Health Organization's recommended maximum of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.


In Kuwait, air traffic at its main airport was suspended for an hour and a half due to a dust storm on May 16, and marine traffic in all three ports remained suspended as of May 17. Kuwait's ministry of education said classes were suspended, 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 center in Jordan told Agence France-Presse (AFP). By the time the sandstorms reach Saudi Arabia they tend to be less intense, he added.


Sandstorms are worsening regionally because of several factors, including low water levels in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, large fluctuations in annual rainfall and disintegrating soil. As for how to mitigate them, Abdallah advised planting more trees and "addressing the low level of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers urgently."


Source: manilatimes.net