Kabul air pollution prompts advice on use of masks

KABUL, 6 January 2011 (IRIN) - KABUL, 6 January 2010 (IRIN) - Worsening air pollution in Kabul has forced the Afghanistan National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) to advise people to use masks or other protective devices during the morning and evening rush hours.

NEPA and the Health Ministry say air pollution causes up to 3,000 deaths a year and spreads skin, respiratory and eye diseases, and even cancer. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) says air pollution causes about two million premature deaths worldwide every year.

“Anyone can observe that the air in Kabul is highly polluted,” said Chiranjibi Gautam, an expert with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

“Up to 75 percent of the air pollution is from transport,” Najibullah Yamin, NEPA’s deputy director, told IRIN.

The country imports tens of thousands of second-hand cars every year. They predominantly use low-grade fuel which pollutes the air, NEPA said.

To discourage the use of state-owned vehicles and reduce pollution, the government announced that Thursdays are to be public holidays until March 2011. Afghanistan normally only observes Friday as a day of rest.

Critics, however, say the extra holiday is benefiting no one, as officials tend to use government vehicles for private purposes on days off. “It’s a joke which in fact is damaging the economy more than helping to reduce air pollution because congestion on Thursdays is no better than on other days,” said Kabul resident Ahmad Temor.

The government has not banned the use of government or private vehicles on Thursdays and Fridays, but merely “requested” that people refrain from using their cars “unnecessarily”.

Kabul’s inadequate public transport system does not meet the needs of its estimated 4.5 million inhabitants, pushing more and more people to buy cars.

Valley aggravates smog

“Kabul is a valley where in winter there is thermal inversion and because of it very low dispersion of pollutants takes place, thus increasing pollution levels,” said UNEP’s Chiranjibi Gautam.

Other main causes of air pollution and environmental degradation are rapid population growth and a largely unregulated urbanization.

The lack of trees, parks and other green areas exacerbate the city’s air quality, experts say. In cold winter months air pollution increases due to the burning of fuel and firewood for heating, they add, though the use of generators has decreased over the past two years due to US-funded electricity imports from neighbouring Tajikistan.

Meanwhile, officials accuse what they call a “land mafia” of plundering public land and illegally building houses, with little or no heed to the environment.

“The land mafia has seized green areas and builds houses and commercial buildings in areas which are crucial for environmental protection purposes,” said NEPA’s Yamin.

A lack of public awareness on environmental issues is part of the problem, he adds. “The last thing on people’s minds here is the air quality and the environment.”  

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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