It's becoming a habit for Iraqis.

A veil of sand and dust covers the cities, softens the streetscape, bathes them in orange light, creeps into the houses, blocks people's sight.

Air traffic is stopped, schools and offices are closed.

The authorities are calling for people to stay at home.

Christopher Ehrhardt

Correspondent for the Arab countries based in Beirut.

  • Follow I follow

On Monday it was time again: A new sandstorm brought public life to a standstill in several parts of the country.

Such extreme weather conditions are nothing new, the region has always been hit by dust and sand storms.

But their number has increased dramatically in recent years - and they have become more extreme.

There have been at least nine violent sandstorms in Iraq since April.

Thousands of people had to be taken to hospital for breathing problems.

Up to 272 "dust days" a year

It is feared that this ominous trend will continue and that such meteorological exceptions will become the norm.

An official at Iraq's environment ministry warned in April that the country could face 272 "dust days" a year for the next two decades.

The forecast by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is even grimmer: According to it, there could be about 300 such events per year in Iraq by 2026.

The causes of the sandstorms – decreasing precipitation, increasing drought and desertification – have been getting worse for years.

Iraq, a country of 41 million people, is ranked as one of the top five countries in the world most affected by climate change and desertification.

Precipitation has recently been record-breakingly low; according to forecasts, it could fall by around nine percent by 2050.

In complete contrast to the temperatures, which are regularly above the 50-degree mark.

There is a risk of longer periods of drought, and the oil-rich country's water reserves are steadily declining.

The Ministry of Water Resources has warned that Iraq's two famous major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, could dry up within 20 years.

Already this year there were strange scenes in the capital that were recorded on videos.

For example, they showed a boy who ran through the ankle-deep Tigris, could even lie down in the middle of the river.

A spectator called out, "Where's the water?"

In November, the World Bank warned that Iraq's water resources could shrink by 20 percent by 2050 as a result of climate change.

Climate change, which experts and government officials have linked to the sandstorms, is just one of the driving forces.

Other causes include overgrazing, overuse and pollution of rivers – and dams.

“The rivers are like the bloodstream of the country.

They're constantly being interrupted,” says Nabil Musa, an environmental activist with the organization Waterkeepers Iraq.

But he fails to see that his country's political class is capable of tackling all of these problems.

Corruption and incompetence are one thing, he explains.

However, he also points out that in the recent past Iraq has been shaken by war, civil war or terrorism for most of the time: "We hardly had a chance to recognize that we have a problem."

“Today they are a source of death”

Other observers are concerned that the country's leadership has no answers to the immense challenges.

Corruption, patronage networks and the politicization of state institutions stand in the way.

“The impacts of climate change are being felt in several critical sectors: agriculture, water, business, public health and the environment.

And they directly affect the lives of Iraqi citizens,” according to a report by the think tanks Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"However, responses to climate change are inadequate and severely hampered by violent conflict, political competition, corruption and a lack of financial resources." If these problems remain unresolved, it goes on to say,

It is not only internal problems that are causing Iraq to continue to dry up.

Powerful neighboring states such as Turkey and Iran also play their part.

"They control 80 percent of Iraq's water," says Iraqi water guard Nabil Musa.

He mourns for the rivers in which he learned to swim or fished - and from which he no longer dares to drink.

“Rivers used to be a source of life,” says Musa.

"Today they are a source of death."