(Baghdad) A sandstorm hits central Iraq and Baghdad on Friday, the first event of its kind this year in the capital of this semi-desert country where these phenomena are increasing.

Last year, Iraq experienced more than a dozen dust and sandstorms in the spring, an unprecedented intensity largely due to desertification.

On Friday, the Iraqis found the now familiar orange halo that colors the atmosphere that has become unbreathable. Visibility was greatly reduced, while a film of dust covered cars and houses, AFP journalists reported.

Pushed east by the wind, the storm moved from Al-Anbar province to reach Baghdad and Salaheddine province in the late afternoon.

Local authorities were not yet able to tally the number of people hospitalized with respiratory ailments related to the storm.

In a statement, Health Minister Saleh al-Hasnaoui said he had ordered “all health facilities to be on high alert” to accommodate these patients.

Questioned by AFP, Maytham al-Safi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Transport, assured that the “flights are continuing normally”.

Last year, with almost every such storm, air transport had to be interrupted, administrations and schools closed and thousands of people hospitalized with respiratory problems.

According to meteorologists, sand and dust storms are expected to increase in the coming years.

The United Nations ranks Iraq among the five countries in the world most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Over the next two decades, the country is expected to experience “272 dust days” per year and by 2050 the 300-day threshold will be reached, according to an Environment Ministry official.

First culprit of this intensification of storms: galloping desertification, judge Amer al-Jabri, spokesperson for the Iraqi meteorological directorate, in an interview with AFP.

Citing “drought, lack of rain, drying up of rivers”, he believes that Iraq “lacks ‘green belts’ and clearing of agricultural land”.

To counter desertification and storms, Prime Minister Mohamed Chia al-Soudani unveiled a campaign in mid-March to “plant five million trees and palms” across Iraq.