|Air pollution in Afghanistan is becoming a serious concern, with almost 500,000 cases of respiratory illness reported within the past 9 years [GETTY]
Like so many average Afghans, Mohammad Sharif moonlights as an unauthorised taxi driver to supplement his meager income as a low-level government employee in Kabul. He drives a rattling jalopy that now bares only a passing resemblance to a Toyota Corolla.
Although he was recently offered $5,000 from a prospective buyer, Sharif insists that he would never sell his car.
"Sure, I could use the money to buy a newer model, but why would I? The older models are in great demand here because they consume less fuel and the parts are cheaper," he explains.
Be that as it may, Sharif is among thousands who have unwittingly contributed to the dramatic deterioration of Afghanistan's once lush and fragrant urban landscape. The emissions of old cars reportedly cause 70 to 75 per cent of air pollution in Kabul. And yet, tens of thousands of second-hand, substandard cars are imported every year, and the resulting air pollution may lead to an estimated 3,000 yearly fatalities, according to the Afghan Ministry of Health.
"Afghanistan has become a junkyard for old cars. Import of old cars (anything over five years) must be banned. Those in the West who were going to pay $1,000 to impound their old cars have now found a way to make $1,000 on those old cars by selling them to people who ship them to Afghanistan," says Daoud Saba, one of a handful Afghan environmental specialists and current governor of the Herat province. "There should be strict control over the exhaust pollution of cars. Regular technical checks must be imposed. Those who don't pass emission tests must be heavily fined and the cars must not be issued permits."
While an overabundance of older and poorly maintained vehicles is among the chief causes of the deplorable quality of air in the Afghan capital, "the smog is in fact a lethal combination of exhaust fumes, industrial emissions, and the misguided use of tires and plastic for fuel," explains Saba.
Although the Afghan cabinet meeting of January 30 issued an order calling for the formation of a special commission to investigate the issue of air pollution, identify its causes and make recommendations for action, thus far, nothing has been made public on the commission's work.
Waiting to exhale
Environment experts warn that air pollution is a little discussed yet potentially calamitous threat to public safety in Afghanistan. According to a 2005-2006 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, 60 per cent of the population in Kabul is exposed to elevated concentrations of particulate matter, nitrous oxides and sulphur dioxide. In the past nine years, there have been around 480,000 reported cases of respiratory illnesses and asthma, according to the Afghan ministry of health, which, according to environmental experts, might have been prevented if it were not for government negligence and/or corruption which impedes the implementation of environmental regulations.
According to UNEP, most of the fuels used in Afghanistan do not comply with international standards and contain high levels of lead. A study carried out by the Afghan ministry of health in 2009 showed that the blood samples of 80 per cent of some 200 Kabul residents contained lead.
"It is the lead in the environment that poisons the brains of Afghan children living in urban sprawls and reduces their learning ability and other air pollutants that are threatening the public health every day, killing many citizens every day," says Atiq Sediqi, an Environmental Management Systems Auditor, and an adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Mines.
So dire are the conditions that last year, Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) issued a public advisory recommending the use of masks or other protective devices during the morning and evening rush hours. NEPA, issued another warning last month, reiterating the public health hazards of the increased air pollutants in the Afghan capital.
"Environmental issues work in chain reaction," says Saba. "Deforestation, poor waste management, not preserving wetlands around urban areas and a host of other issues have also contributed to air pollution."
More than 70 per cent of the country's eastern and southeastern forests have been cut down to export wood to feed Pakistan's highly lucrative lumber business - an enterprise that serves only to line the pockets of Afghanistan's warlords-cum-statesmen. Moreover, the mismanagement of pistachio forests has not only damaged the eco-balance in northeastern parts of the country, but it has left tens of thousands without a source of income. These people are now compelled to migrate to the big cities in search of jobs, a phenomenon that has contributed to a population explosion in the urban centres of Afghanistan.
"Over the years, due to population growth and the increasing number of vehicles on the road, the problem has grown more challenging, and it is my view that everybody is now susceptible to [health hazards caused by] air pollution in Kabul," says Mostapha Zaher, NEPA director and a grandson of the late Mohammed Zaher Shah, former king of Afghanistan (1933-1973).
No place like home
The city of Kabul was built with infrastructure for one million residents and designed to allow a maximum circulation of 75,000 cars. In 1978, the population of Kabul was estimated to be a little over half a million. Today, there are nearly 4 million souls living in the capital and over 400,000 cars are circulating excluding buses, loaders, military, police, and vehicles belonging to NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
High-density unplanned and informal settlements place huge demands on fragile basic urban services, such as the energy supply, waste management, sanitation, housing and infrastructure, while aggravating urban air pollution.
"Population density in Kabul is high and most of the hills and mountain tops are occupied by houses that are lacking sanitation and access to clean water," says Dr Sediqi. "During the rain and snow, the urban runoff saturated with human waste is transported down the hills to the streets below. The mix is ground by passing traffic to a very fine powder and once dry, it is airborne by the wind and moving traffic."
Saba, who holds a PhD in environmental sciences, and has written extensively on Afghanistan's environmental issues, calls for "a comprehensive plan" to control population growth in Kabul and migration to Kabul.
"The mass migration of returnees from neighbouring countries and from rural areas can be reversed by developing provinces so that rural populations can live and have livelihood means in their native villages," he suggests.
While the government is largely held responsible for its negligence in enforcing sound environmental regulations, Saba laments a widespread lack of environmental awareness.
"People don't understand the harm," he says.
Garbage is dumped haphazardly on roadsides, and tires and plastic are routinely burned as heating fuel by the poor who are desperate for warmth during Afghanistan's bone-chilling winters.
"Sub-standard generators built from the old engines of cars, burning of plastic, old car tires, burnt engine oil, burning archa wood which is very oily in bathhouses, burning of coal ash in brick kilns, Public bathhouses and bakeries and many other noxious non-organic substances, are responsible for 20 to 25 per cent of the air pollution in the city of Kabul," explains Mostapha.
He also cites dust from construction projects, dramatic reduction of green space because of illegal building of non-standard houses on government land and nature as other contributing factors.
In winter, a blanket of dust and pollutants covers Kabul due to a phenomenon called "atmospheric inversion", which traps the pollutants over the city. Air pollution is also quite high in spring and summer when the air is dry and dusty, triggering a rise in asthma attacks.
"The city sits in a basin 1,800 meters above sea level, and is surrounded by mountains that rise two to three kilometres or more above the basin," explains Sediqi. "High elevation and intense sunlight trigger ozone formation."
As a result of Kabul's geography, there is far less dispersion of pollutants, and the problems become more serious, adds Mostapha, who gave up his comfortable post as Afghan ambassador to Italy to take up his post with NEPA in 2004.
What lies beneath
Saba highlights what he believes is "a lack of political will" on the higher government levels.
"Individual interests prevent them from seriously implementing regulations. They think of immediate economic gains, rather than the long-term environmental damages," he says.
As per article 15 of Afghanistan's constitution, the state is obligated to adopt necessary measures to protect and improve forests as well as the living environment. Instead, politicians succumb to pressure by commercial enterprises and their promises of financial gain. Saba attributes the government's failure to impose high taxes on the import of old cars to "a handful of influential people who own automobile import businesses."
A recent cabinet decision declaring Thursdays a public holiday was seen as a clumsy bid to improve air quality by reducing traffic congestion once a week. Critics have panned this move as inadequate and as a ploy to skirt the main issue. They point to regulations drawn by NEPA and UNEP that ought to be implemented rather than cosmetic measures that only serve to protect those who are benefiting from unregulated emission production. For the moonlighting taxi drivers such as Mohammad Sharif, however, the extra public holiday provides an extra full day of picking up passengers in his rattling 1996 Corolla.
For his part, the NEPA director insists that work is underway to bring emission standards to industries and vehicles, but he emphasises that "the real enforcement must be ensured by our ministries."
NEPA says it has the Clean Air Regulation ready, but "the challenge lies in translating words and legislation into action," warns Mostapha.
"There must be round the clock coordination and cooperation between all government organs," he says.
Saba who thinks urgent measures should have already been implemented, says: "If it was any other country, they would have had an air pollution advisory for the children and elderly not to go out, especially in winter."
Waste not, want not
A large population produces a large amount of garbage, and with no systematic garbage collection and garbage disposal, the result is large piles of garbage at every street corner, spread open by stray dogs at night. Kabul's summer winds in July and early August provide an excellent vehicle for germs to spread all over the city and be inhaled by residents.
"Environmental issues are inter-connected. No city in Afghanistan has a proper and technical management of solid waste. They are dumping waste in valleys and open fields, which is extremely dangerous not only in polluting the air, but also for underwater pollution," says Saba. "It costs $8 to $10 million to construct a proper landfill. Neither the foreign aid for development, nor the Afghan government budget has so far earmarked such large sums to build landfills for urban centres."
Mostapha acknowledges that waste management is one of the major urban environmental problems and toward this aim, he says, NEPA has introduced the National Waste Management Policy.
"We are formulating new, more proactive regulations soon," he says. "In urban planning it is very crucial, to allocate areas for disposal of wastes and sewage treatment facilities. Right now, it is haphazardly developed. Addressing these problems will be very difficult but not impossible. It needs proper investment and time."
Where to from here
In December 2007, the Afghan government announced that haphazard, makeshift homes located on the hills around Kabul would be demolished so that trees and other plants could grow there. Plans were also announced to pave all roads to alleviate transportation problems and optimise urban spatial planning. While some work has been done on paving the main streets of the capital, the hilltop homes continue to stand and the waste produced by their occupants are waiting to be washed down to the streets of Kabul by spring rains.
Mostapha says that he has repeatedly called on the ministry of interior's Directorate of Traffic to stop those cars that can visibly be seen to be spewing dark emissions from their exhausts. Thus far, according to the Directorate of Traffic, over 9,000 cars have been stopped and the owners asked to rectify the problem. But, Kabul drivers such as Mohammad Sharif do not appear apprehensive about losing their vehicle permits.
"Even the occasional emission warning is nothing but a ploy to extort a couple of bucks from drivers," chuckles the old-timer.
Still, the relentless head of the Afghan environment watchdog insists: "We are trying to make sure only the quality vehicles and quality fuel is imported into the country... The polluter-should-pay principle must be adhered to and NEPA will try to convince our economic policy makers to realise this."
In order to glean a more accurate picture of the problem, the Afghan Environment Agency has begun installing roadside monitoring stations in strategic parts of Kabul.
Additional NEPA projects include encouraging people to use bicycles for short distances, lobbying to improve the public transport system and promote the use of natural gas in bakeries and bathhouses. One particularly innovative approach to raising public awareness on environmental issues has been through enlisting the help of local Mullahs.
"A rigorous environmental awareness campaign must be launched. Afghans have no knowledge of environmental issues, their importance to their lives and things they can do as citizens to contribute in preventing pollution. These messages must be pounded, with strength and in a sustainable way," says Daoud Saba.
Meanwhile, as the Afghan new year, Nawruz, approaches, the international community has made yet another symbolic gesture towards assisting Afghanistan's critical environmental problem.
Last week, Karl Eikenberry, US ambassador in Kabul, planted the first of the 240,000 trees that Washington has donated to Afghanistan. The mayor of Kabul subsequently announced that the rest of the donor nations "will hopefully add to the United States' generous gift in an effort to re-forest Afghanistan."