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HERAT, 20 August 2008 (IRIN) - Unusually strong winds carrying dust from the parched land have increased respiratory and eye diseases in western Afghanistan, according to health and environmental officials.

The winds - known locally as "the 120-day winds" - usually begin in early July and go on until late September in Herat Province, the provincial department of agriculture said. This year's winds have been unusually strong, destructive and dust-laden.

"Because of drought, climate change, environmental degradation and lack of vegetation, the wind is extremely strong and dusty this time - unprecedented in several decades," Akhtar Mohammad Mahboob, an official at the provincial department of environmental protection, told IRIN.

"Serious" air pollution has been caused in Herat Province by the swirling dust and there has been a significant increase in reported cases of respiratory and eye diseases, public health officials said.


Damage to agricultural land

Herat agricultural officials said the winds were a mixture of gales and whirlwinds and had caused extensive damage to agriculture.

"Usually these winds damage 2-3cm of topsoil, but this year preliminary assessments indicate that damage has been caused up to 12cm down," said Abdullah Khawari, an official in the department of agriculture. He said soil fertility and agricultural production had been affected.

"The wind has also moved piles of sand onto agricultural land, damaging its fertility," Khawari said.

Afghanistan has lost over 70 percent of its forests and vegetation in the past three decades, leading to desertification and environmental degradation particularly in the south, east and west, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock.