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Holding our Breath for Cleaner Air

The Taliban may receive greater notoriety; however, air pollution is Kabul’s biggest threat and killer. On any given day in Kabul, a pall of dust and smog coats the city and obliterates the view of nearby snow-capped mountains, and causes a myriad of health problems – and death –  for residents of the city.

kabul smog

The Ministry of Health estimates that 3,000 people die from pollution-induced illnesses in Kabul each year, making it the biggest cause of natural death in the city. They further estimate that the number of Afghans suffering from respiratory problems has trebled over six years to 480,000. According to the National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA), nearly 80 percent of Kabul’s hospital patients suffer from diseases caused by polluted air and water.

Those most affected include children, the elderly, and those who already suffer from diabetes, heart disease, or respiratory problems. Unborn children are also threatened by the extreme pollution. Carbon mono-oxide is proven to increase ventricular septal birth defects – a condition already high in Afghanistan.

Underpinning the problem is Kabul’s rapid population expansion as people flee to the capital in search of relative stability amid fighting in the rural areas. Originally designed for less than a million people, Kabul is now home to approximately five million, and growing, a figure which Kabul Municipality says has doubled in just six years.  Many of the new arrivals live in illegally built slums, and during the winter they must burn anything they can get a hold of including highly toxic tyres, plastic, and dung.

Kabul’s many powerless nights further spark the usage of diesel generators. NEPA estimates that there are over 200,000 such generators working on any given night, infusing the air with more pollutants.

Further assaults to the air come from the approximate 900,000 vehicles that clog the Kabul’s streets. These old and poorly maintained cars lack catalytic converters and other emission control devices. They are imported illegally from different countries, and spew forth fumes which are the byproduct of low quality fuel. Afghanistan imports low quality fuel, or ‘dirty fuel’, and the exhaust from these fuels pile pollutants into the air, including lead. According to NEPA, a random sample of 200 people found 80 percent had high lead fuels in their blood. Furthering contributing to the pollution is the fact that all these cars travel over mostly unpaved roads. Vehicles kick up large amounts of dust which then hovers for days posing an immense hazard to pedestrians.

Finally, in a city that lacks a sewage system, garbage collection and waste management are serious issues complicated by the city’s over population. Kabul produces nearly 2,000 tonnes of solid waste a day when the capacity of dealing with it is 400 tonnes! The balance is being left in the streets.

children often collect Kabul's street rubbish in the hope of finding items to sell or trade

Clearly, something needs to be done. The scale of the problem is so great that President Karzai recently formed a task force to tackle Kabul’s pollution problems. NEPA is leading a group of ministries in an attempt to address the causes of pollution, starting with the dirty fuel that is being imported. New government regulations are on the cards to prevent traders from importing substandard fuel.

The government is also setting up monitoring stations on borders to inspect all inbound vehicles to and other emission monitoring policies are being formulated. A resolution has been put in place banning the further importation of old cars, and last year, Thursdays were made a weekend holiday in addition to Friday, in a move to reduce air pollution.

Kabul Municipality is initiating a number of environmental cleanup actions. They are working together with USAID and launching several projects aimed at collecting rubbish from Kabul’s streets, and estimate that this effort will create an additional 3,000 jobs. USAID will spend USD 60 million between now and 2012 on waste management, drainage channels and roadside ditches, the rehabilitation of city parks and sports fields, and other greenery programmes in Kabul.

Environmental awareness is reaching down to the student level too. A recent Environment Week was proclaimed, and NEPA launched a number of rubbish collecting projects that involved schools and universities.

But this is not enough. Municipality officials say a more permanent solution is needed. The fundamental solution is the launch of a comprehensive urban planning programme for the city. Kabul remains a sprawl of open sewers, illegal slums, squatters, and standstill traffic on most streets throughout the day. The city has not had a comprehensive plan to assimilate the millions of new residents, and without one, tackling air pollution will remain an uphill struggle.

The immediate outcome remains bleak. Till environmentally friendly, urban planning and development schemes are in place, we can do little but hold our breath.

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