In Kabul, terrorism isn’t the only thing threatening people’s lives

In Kabul, terrorism isn't the only thing threatening people's lives

A silhouette of cyclist in traffic in Kabul, Afghanistan.

(AP/Altaf Qadri)
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Behind the dark curtain of a raging Taliban-led insurgency, Kabul’s six million residents are facing another deadly battle – against the city’s deteriorating air quality. In fact, for those struggling to breathe in the toxic air of Afghanistan’s capital city, the alarmingly high levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) amongst other pollutants, are no less dangerous than the deadly bombings that regularly occur in the city.

There is very little data available but according to the World Health Organization (WHO) deaths due to environmental risks (of which Household Air Pollution, or HAP, caused by ‘dirty’ cooking and heating fuel is the major risk factor) constituted 26 per cent of all deaths in Afghanistan in 2016. In addition, it was estimated that HAP caused over 27,000 deaths that same year, while outdoor air pollution caused over 11,000 deaths.

Breathing in dirty air not only causes and exacerbates asthma, but it can also lead to other respiratory conditions, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.

In a country where per capita health expenditure is only US$167 according to the most recent figures, this is a public health crisis Afghanistan cannot afford to fight.

Italian entrepreneur and consultant, Ivo Toniut, who has been working on reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan since 2002, is one of the many victims of Kabul’s air pollution. “In July 2018 I began to experience the symptoms of throat cancer that Italian experts believe was born in the years I lived in Kabul,” he tells Equal Times. Toniut returned to Italy where he underwent surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Now, cancer-free, he says he is ready to return to Afghanistan to help join the fight against air pollution. “I hope that my bad experience can be useful to help people understand the enormous need to start doing something effective against pollution and to protect the environment of this beautiful country,” he says.

Kabul was ranked the third worst city in the world for air quality after Delhi and Dhaka in the 2018 World Air Quality Report, and at certain points during the winter months, it had some of the world’s highest levels of PM 2.5 pollution, which refers to atmospheric particulate matter (PM) such as sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon and mineral dust.

At present, due to the warmer weather, many of the factors contributing to Kabul’s seriously polluted air – such as the inhabitants of informal settlements and internally displaced person camps burning waste for household heating due to power shortages and high energy prices – aren’t as prevalent. But the exhaust fumes and the unregulated industrial activities continues to pump the city’s air with toxins all year round, as do the emissions from coal-fired factories.

Building awareness

In a bid to prevent Kabul’s air quality topping the world’s worst lists again, the country’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) recently announced a five-year plan to combat air pollution. Salient features of this strategy include gradually banning the use of low-grade coal and petroleum and establishing a new police unit for air quality control in major urban centers. NEPA is also currently working across various governmental departments to building awareness on the dangers of air pollution.

“We have initiated two major moves in this regard,” says Leela Samani, director of public relations for NEPA. “We have an agreement with the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs to help us spread messages about actions for a greener, cleaner environment throughout thousands of mosques all over the country,” she says.

As a result, prayer leaders across Afghanistan have agreed to encourage their congregants to undertake measures to improve air pollution levels and general environmental wellbeing, such reducing the burning of sub-standard fuel in vehicles or for heating.

Despite its meagre resources, NEPA has also teamed up with the Ministry of Education to ensure that public school students are taught about how to protect the environment.

The most vulnerable = the worst affected

Although there is no avoiding air pollution in Kabul, it is the city’s poorest residents who are most at risk. They tend to live in informal structures, which are often close to the roadside or near industrial areas where the air quality remains dangerous poor all-year round. With temperatures dropping as low as -1°C in the winter, the poorest residents also tend to burn everything from old rubber tyres to used cardboard and whatever wood they can find – to stay warm and cook food, despite the dangerous soot and smoke produced by such materials.

Children are also extremely vulnerable to the negative impacts of Kabul’s poor air quality. Ministry of Public Health spokesperson, Waheedullah Mayar, tells Equal Times that while there are no independently verified statistics available to gauge the impact of air pollution on the population, the fact that one public hospital has reported seeing up to 1,000 children brought in for treatment a day for different respiratory diseases during the winter gives some sense of the scale of the problem.

A UNICEF report for South Asia titled Danger in the air: how air pollution can affect brain development in young children indicates that when children breathe toxic air it potentially puts their brain development at risk. At the same time, children are also highly vulnerable to air pollution because they breathe more rapidly and because their immune systems are not yet fully developed.

Since 2017, based on a presidential decree, any person found guilty of committing major pollution-related crimes (the definition of which is very flexible dependent on the whims of law enforcement officers) can face a maximum of between 16 and 20 years in prison, although in most cases, guilty parties receive a small fine. The law also states that someone whose actions (with regards to environmental hazards) have led to the death of a person can, in extreme cases, be sentenced to death.

But enforcement remains a huge issue and those with enough money are rarely held accountable for their crimes. Even in the face of such harsh punishment for proven offenders, Toniut says that much more needs to be done to combat air pollution in Afghanistan. “The high level of corruption remains the biggest obstacle to the clear skies of Kabul and other Afghan cities.”