Thick cloud of dust has turned the skies orange as a massive dust storm blasted broad regions of Iraq. Poor visibility forced the cancellation of flights at Baghdad and Najaf airports last month. Visibility in certain parts of Iraq was less than 500 meters on Saturday, April 30. The dust storms also resulted in hundreds of people requiring hospital treatment for respiratory ailments. Health officials reported that dust storms have lately affected up to 14 provinces in Iran. According to Iraq’s meteorological office, drought, desertification, and diminishing rainfall are expected to increase the number of dust storms in the country. Dust storms have become more common in the Middle East, and experts attribute this to a mix of climate change and poor land and water management. A lack of green space in and around cities might also aggravate the issue.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimated in 2016 that Iraq could have 300 dust episodes every year in the next ten years, up from roughly 120 presently. The most affected countries are Iran and Kuwait, owing to sand and dust blowing in from Syria and Iraq. “One of the main sources of sand and dust storms is Iraq, where the flow of rivers has decreased because of a race in dam constructions in upstream countries,” explains World Meteorology Organisation meteorologist Enric Terradellas. Sand storms have always occurred in the region’s deserts, but scientists believe that unsustainable mining, oil production, agriculture, and intense military conflicts are worsening the problem. Meteorologists note that sand and dust storms are also occurring in new locations, such as regions of Central Asia.