By Moncho Torres
Kabul, Dec 24 (EFE).- The return of the Taliban paralyzed everything in Kabul, including the measures that the Afghan capital had taken over the last few years to combat air pollution, which, with the arrival of winter, shoots up to toxic levels.
Passengers getting off a plane at Kabul international airport are greeted with a choking sensation from the polluted air, and a constant smell of smoke, like a fire, while a mist of suspended particles covers the city’s horizon.
Located at an altitude of about 1,800 meters (around 5,900 feet) above sea level in a narrow valley, average temperatures in Kabul during the winter drop several degrees below zero, which allows pollutants to remain suspended and not disperse, as explained in an article by the UN Environment Program.
The main cause of this situation is coal, a low-cost resource that provides power to factories and warms buildings and houses in this densely populated city, Naqeb Sidiqi, director of sustainable development at the country’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), explained to EFE.
Stalls selling firewood and coal are found in every corner of the capital’s streets, with the price varying between 8,500-9,000 Afghanis (about $82-87) per ton.
These are used by people in Kabul to warm their houses by burning it in kitchens or stoves placed in the carpeted parlors that serve as the meeting points of the household.
With a population of about six million people in a city initially designed for half a million, Kabul also suffers from other pollutants, according to Sidiqi, such as “importing poor quality fuel and petroleum which were earlier strictly prohibited.”
“Last year, we had both long-term and short-term plans and the short-term plans have been implemented last year. But with recent changes, our teams, especially the air pollution monitoring team, are not active in the last four months,” he said.
By these recent “changes,” the environmentalist refered to the return of the Taliban to power in August with the takeover of Kabul, bringing an end to the American occupation of Afghanistan after two decades of conflict.
The return of the Islamist regime, after an earlier stint in power between 1996 and 2001, triggered the flight of much of the country’s international agencies, as well as freezing Afghan funds abroad and cutting off of financial aid.
Given this situation, Sidiqi explained, they do not have basic data such as current pollution levels, since “the (measuring) equipment is not active,” although he expected it to be operational “soon” again.
“If the air pollution continues like this and gets worse, we will have a kind of respiratory illness catastrophe in Kabul. I hope we can control it and apply measures as we did previously in order to avoid disasters,” he warned.
Two years ago, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health had warned that in the last week of 2019 alone, some 9,000 people had to be treated in the capital’s 17 hospitals for pollution-related respiratory diseases.
This was 20 percent more than in the last week of 2018, and the ministry then noted that at least 17 of these patients died from these diseases, ten of them under-age and four elderly people who had a history of asthma and heart disease.
Some city dwellers are aware of these threats and have been trying to protect themselves with the most common weapon in the time of the pandemic – masks.
Hamid Rahimi works in a market and every day near his shop he always gets the smell of “plastic burning nearby,” forcing him to use two masks for safety.
“Without a mask, especially in the morning and at night, it’s like committing suicide,” he remarked. EFE