(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Kabul’s air pollution putting people’s health at risk

The Afghan capital is also suffering from an unregulated urbanisation and rapid population growth. Despite over 1 million in-service automobiles the Kabul traffic department register over 8,000
new vehicles every month.
Akmal Dawi/IRIN

Worsening air pollution in Kabul is “seriously” threatening the health and well-being of its estimated three million residents, Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) has said.

“In terms of air pollution we are facing a crisis in Kabul,” Dad Mohammad Baheer, the deputy director of NEPA, told IRIN.

“Over 70 percent of diseases in Kabul are linked to air pollution, unclean water and solid waste,” he said, adding that children were particularly susceptible to various diseases originating from toxic pollutants in the air.

Severe air pollution causes respiratory disorders, eye and nasal problems, and is one of the major causes of lung cancer, public health experts say.

“Over the past few years diagnosed cases of cancer, mainly among children, have increased considerably,” Baheer said.

A short stroll in Kabul during the daytime leads to clear evidence – when one blows one’s nose on a handkerchief - of the polluted atmosphere.

Kabul has also lost over 70 percent of its greenery, particularly trees, over the past two decades, NEPA’s findings show.


Photo:
A photo taken in the 1980s of an area of Kabul. Kabul has lost over 70 percent of its greenery, particularly trees, over the past two decades, according to NEPA

Polluting vehicles

Vehicle emissions are considered a major contributor to air pollution: Every month Kabul’s one million vehicles are added to by over 8,000 new vehicles registered with the Kabul traffic department, officials said. Most vehicles in Kabul are over 10 years old and more polluting than modern ones.

“The problem in Kabul is compounded by the widespread use of substandard car fuel and old engines,” Baheer said.

Power cuts and the absence a national natural gas grid mean that many households use wood, coal and heating oil for cooking and heating.

Moreover, some brick factories, public baths and small businesses burn old tyres, plastic and combustible waste to run their businesses more cheaply. Toxic pollutants, sulfur oxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide are emitted, NEPA experts say.

“Poor waste management – both solid and otherwise - is yet another major problem in Kabul which also damages the air quality,” Baheer said.

Unlike some other capital cities, Kabul has the added problem of its arid and mountainous landscape and lack of nearby woodlands, according to NEPA.


Photo:
Kabul in the 1980s, when its air quality was much better

Fledging environmental protection agency

Kabul faces numerous environmental problems: a virtually non-existent sewage and sanitation system, burgeoning slums, crumbling infrastructure and rapid population growth. The fledging environmental protection agency will have an uphill struggle in improving air quality.

“We have to act fast and execute a series of projects such as the rehabilitation of forests and promotion of greenery, ban the import and use of substandard fuel, improve waste management... and build and strengthen our own institutional capacity,” NEPA’s deputy director said.

NEPA is looking forward to receiving its first ever assistance from a donor: The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has pledged about US$500,000, Baheer said.

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