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A climate expert raises concern over severe sand storms in Iraq

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over 5,000 Iraqis needed medical care after the country was hit by a severe sandstorm last week. At least one person was killed. This was the seventh major sandstorm to hit the country in the span of one month. And while sandstorms are not uncommon in this part of the world, their increasing frequency and severity has caused concern among climate experts. Here to unpack all of this with us is Azzam Alwash, founder and CEO of the environmental group Nature Iraq. Welcome.

AZZAM ALWASH: Thank you.

CHANG: So let me ask you - I have never personally experienced a sandstorm. Can you just describe what does a sandstorm of this magnitude look like and feel like?

ALWASH: April is the month where the weather starts changing from the winter to summer. And it's always - we had the (inaudible) or the hamsin (ph) winds that bring in these incredibly orangey-looking (ph) sandstorms that kind of covers everything. When the sandstorm is gone, everything behind it is orange, and everything is covered with a thin layer of dust.

CHANG: So to give listeners a real idea of the health consequences that you are already seeing from these severe sandstorms, like, what kind of respiratory conditions and other illnesses do these storms cause?

ALWASH: As it happens, I am one of the victims of these sandstorms. I actually get asthma attacks when these sandstorm happen. I have to stay inside. And even if you stay inside, you're not really escaping those small, little particles. So difficulty in breathing is going to hit the young as well as the old. Coupled with that, there is increased in temperature. The temperature models are predicted to be increasing. This is not a joke. This is really existential stuff for Iraq.

CHANG: And why are these storms getting more frequent and more intense now in that region?

ALWASH: Well, obviously, climate change is making weather patterns more extreme, more frequent. But what is also accompanied with it is the fact that Iraq has been losing its arable land to desertification, to salinization. My frustration with Iraq officials - they now talk about climate change as the reason for all of this. Well, I cannot deny that climate change is part of it, but it has become an easy excuse for not acting. In reality, they could have worked with this 20 years, 30 years ago and prevented this thing from getting more severe.

CHANG: So what should the government in Iraq have been doing the last 10, 20 years in order to have avoided or mitigated these sandstorms?

ALWASH: The Iraqi officials could have spent the last 20 years modernizing irrigation, reducing the loss of agricultural land to salinization, reducing the desertification, stopping the pastoral activities or limiting the pastoral activities to certain areas. But it's not been done. And the Iraqi officials are used to reacting, not acting proactively.

CHANG: So at this point, can any of the repercussions that we're seeing be reversed so that these sandstorms become less severe?

ALWASH: It took 40 years. It's going to take a lot longer to recover. What we need to do is modernize irrigation so that we reduce the losses due to desertification. We need to increase planting of palm trees and create the green belts. These are all, of course, going to take a decade or two to create. But one thing that I have learned - nature has the ability to heal. We just need to remove mankind's effect from it.

CHANG: Azzam Alwash is founder and CEO of the environmental group Nature Iraq. Thank you very much for joining us today.

ALWASH: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.