Unprecedented heat wave batters Mideast
Amman - An unusually powerful heat wave, coupled with unseasonable sand and thunder storms, swept across the Middle East, disrupting power and air traffic in Jordan, forcing Iraq to declare a public holiday and sending people to the beaches across the region.
In southern parts of the Levant, including Syria’s capital, Damascus, Jordan, Iraq’s vast western desert, the Palestinian territories and south-eastern Israel, unusually strong winds drove enormous sandstorms which blanketed cities and sent frightened people indoors to take cover.
“Oh my God, this is Armageddon!” exclaimed Amman secretary Nadia Rawad, 26, as she abandoned a bank teller machine when whistling winds brought towering clouds of dust. The storm blocked out the sun, turning visibility to zero and transforming the landscape with colourful shades of yellow and orange.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” whispered puzzled Amman bookstore owner Ibrahim Jalad, 49, pointing to the raging dust storm as temperatures hit 48 degrees Celsius mid-afternoon on August 2nd.
Amman’s main international airport diverted at least three incoming flights and delayed the departure of scores of others as the storm peaked in the late afternoon.
In eastern Jordan, an unseasonable thunderstorm hit the vast desert shared with Iraq’s Anbar province. Southern Jordan also received rain, but not parched Amman, which depends on winter rainfall for nearly two-thirds of its water needs.
Hussein Momani, the chief forecaster at the Jordan Meteorological Department (JMD), said it was the first time Jordan had received rain in August in 80 years.
“The instability is caused by low pressure accompanied with a heat wave from India passing through the Arabian peninsula,” Momani said, referring to the storm’s route through Gulf Arab states.
He said the heat wave, which began on July 28th and was predicted to last until August 6th, reached its peak on August 2nd. That day, temperatures on the eastern edge of Amman reached 47 degrees, the highest since 1974 when temperatures peaked at 48.8 degrees.
In the Jordan Valley, the country’s food basket, temperatures of 52 degrees were reported.
It was slightly cooler in Lebanon, where a chain of mountains parallel to the eastern Mediterranean coast rise more than 3,000 metres and see snow for a good part of the year.
Below in Beirut, on the Mediterranean coast, people struggled with water and power outages caused by damage at the country’s second largest power plant. The temperature hovered around 37 degrees but exceeded 40 in the lower plains of the central Bekaa valley.
The Civil Defence force said it had put out several forest fires driven by hot winds blowing across the country, including big blazes in southern Lebanon’s villages of Kfar Kila and Deir Mimas. Syria also reported several large fires.
“Even nature is against Lebanon. A heat wave is all we need. It adds to this country’s misfortunes,” complained May Lahoud. She was referring to Lebanon’s political and economic hardships, rendered worse by a refugee influx from the Syrian conflict.
In Beirut on the weekend of August 2-3, overwhelming heat limited movement, leaving streets almost deserted.
Many Lebanese preferred to stay indoors. If an outing was a must, they headed to air conditioned shopping malls.
“You cannot breathe outside. I prefer to stay in a closed air-conditioned area all day long until this wave from hell is over,” Lahoud added.
In Israel, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Lebanon, TV and radio announcements cautioned people against direct exposure to the midday sun. Jordan’s Civil Defence Department reported 32 cases of sunstroke and dehydration on August 2nd alone.
The same day, Syria’s Sweida province, along Jordan’s northern border, health officials treated dozens of cases with breathing problems.
In Syria, the site of a long civil war, power cuts limited electricity to four hours a day, half of what is was before the heat wave.
Temperatures, which peaked at 42 degrees on August 2nd, were still expected to be in the high 30s — eight to nine degrees above the seasonal average — until August 6th, according to Weather. com.
Yasser Ali, a resident of the middle-class Damascus neighbourhood of Mazzeh, strolled in a public park with his wife and three children to enjoy the night breeze. “At home, it feels like being in an oven,” Ali said in an area of the capital that, like Jordan, was blanketed with dust.
In Syria’s northern Raqqa province, the Islamic State’s stronghold, Syrians flocked to the banks of the River Euphrates. Some cooled off by swimming in the river and many families spent nights on its banks.
In the Gaza Strip, electricity is also available for just four hours a day, making it impossible to stay indoors and driving many to sleep in the street or on the beach.
In Iraq, electricity is available to households about eight hours a day, but still the government declared July 30th and August 2nd heat-related public holidays. On those days, temperatures hit 56 degrees for the first time in more than a decade. At night, the temperature only dropped to 48.
“It is hell,” complained Jassim Kaabi, 38. “You can barely work, walk or have the energy to do anything.”
Ice-making firms in the southern port city of Basra reported a 120% increase in demand. These businesses, which sell large chunks of ice to food stores, are common in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other countries plagued with power outages that hamper refrigeration.
In Egypt, the heat was so intense that Cairo street hawker Ali Abdullah, 13, kept pouring water on his head to cool himself off.
“It is really intolerable,” Abdullah said of the temperature in the Egyptian capital. “I had really hoped to stay at home but I had to go to the street to earn a living.”
Many Egyptians, however, remained indoors to escape the scorching heat.
Egypt, which is usually known for milder weather, is having almost its worst heat wave in years, with temperatures rising to 38 degrees. To cope with the rising heat, people who must be outdoors, like Abdullah, are improvising. Some have been seen jumping into the Nile from bridges linking Cairo’s districts. Younger children were seen splashing in the cool waters of street fountains.