Air pollution becomes Afghanistan’s silent killer

Common causes of pollution in Afghanistan are low-quality fuel and dilapidated vehicles. (AN photo)
Updated 14 January 2019

Air pollution becomes Afghanistan’s silent killer

  • Common causes of pollution include low-quality fuel, inefficient vehicles
  • Harsh droughts have contributed to the decrease in air quality

KABUL: From a distance, giant khaki blankets appear to smother Kabul’s spectacular mountainside.

Visitors may even be enthralled by the phenomenon. Only when near the suburbs, however, do they realize the enveloping layer is thick smog of dirt and fumes.

A report released in the US last month listed Kabul as among the top 10 most polluted cities in the world. For many Afghans, it is a potent silent killer.

The Afghan government, riven by internal strife and locked in conflict with the Taliban, lacks the technology to monitor pollution levels in a city of nearly 6 million people.

It also either keeps no official statistics on how many die annually as a result of air pollution, or does not acknowledge them. Its resources are scant, and measures to curb pollution exist only on paper.

Estimates by independent researchers about the number of deaths, though, are shocking. A former Afghan public health worker, based in the UK, told the BBC that 30,000 people died due to conditions linked to air pollution last year alone. Others say it is even higher.

“The latest report from the Health Effects Institute’s State of Global Air project estimates that air pollution was attributable for 51,600 deaths in Afghanistan in 2016,” noted the Conflict and Environment Observatory in June 2018. 

“With an annual rate of 406 deaths per 100,000, its air pollution is among the worst in the world. The report combines data on PM2.5, ozone and indoor air pollution associated with the combustion of solid fuels.”

Common causes of pollution include low-quality fuel, inefficient vehicles, and the burning of tires, rubber, plastic and coal.

Harsh droughts have contributed to the decrease in air quality, and at night, when temperatures drop below freezing, Kabul’s residents often have no choice but to use these dirty fuel sources to keep warm.

With power shortages exacerbating high electricity and gas prices, households are also burning around 2,200 kg of wood annually. That can cause serious respiratory issues, and has been linked to cancer.

“Your heart and lungs cannot distinguish the poison caused by these particles, and we all breathe them in every day,” Dr. Rabbani Nazbar said.

Environmental expert Mohammad Kazim Humayoun, meanwhile, told Arab News that people in Kabul should consider wearing facemasks and washing their hands regularly to lessen the effects of pollution.

Last month, the Afghan Parliament summoned officials to explain what was being done to reduce air pollution. “How can we justify this ongoing situation to the people?” Speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi asked.

Waheed Mayar, a spokesman for the Ministry for Public Health, admitted that air pollution in Kabul was rising, but did not comment on the number of deaths it may have caused.

He said the Afghan government planned to acquire better pollution-testing facilities, and to take less efficient vehicles off the roads, but could not give a time frame for when either might happen. It also held an initiative last year, giving government employees an extra day off work to cut traffic pollution — it is unclear what effect this may have had.


Kashmir protesters defy restrictions, clash with security forces

Updated 23 August 2019

Kashmir protesters defy restrictions, clash with security forces

  • Paramilitary police tried to enter Soura, which has emerged as a center of the protests, as hundreds demonstrated against Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw autonomy
  • Posters appeared overnight in Srinagar, the Muslim-majority region’s main city, calling for a march to the office of the UN Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan

SRINAGAR, India: Security forces used tear gas against stone-throwing local residents in Indian Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar on Friday, after a third straight week of protests in the restive Soura district despite the imposition of tight restrictions.
Paramilitary police tried to enter Soura, which has emerged as a center of the protests, as hundreds of locals staged a protest march against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to withdraw autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5.
Posters appeared overnight this week in Srinagar, the Muslim-majority region’s main city, calling for a march to the office of the UN Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), to protest against India’s decision.
This was the first such call by separatists seeking Kashmir’s secession from India. India’s move was accompanied by travel and communication restrictions in Kashmir that are still largely in place, although some landlines were restored last week.
The UNMOGIP was set up in 1949 after the first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, a Himalayan region both countries claim in full but rule in part. The group monitors cease-fire violations along the border between the countries.
In a narrow lane of Soura, blocked like many others with rocks and sheets of metal, residents hurled stones at the paramilitary police to stop them moving into an area around the local mosque, Jinab Sahib, which had earlier been packed for Friday prayers.
The police responded with several rounds of tear gas and chili grenades but were beaten back by dozens of stone-pelting men. Some men suffered pellet injuries.
The locals said the security forces had been repeatedly trying to move into Soura, often using tear gas and pellets.
“We are neither safe at home, nor outside,” said Rouf, who declined to give his full name. He had rubbed salt into his face to counteract the effects of tear gas.
The afternoon had begun peacefully, with men and women streaming into Jinab Sahib for afternoon prayers. A cleric then raised a call for “Azadi” – Urdu for freedom – several times, and declared Kashmir’s allegiance to neighboring Pakistan.
“Long live Pakistan,” the cleric said, as worshippers roared back in approval.
US President Donald Trump plans to discuss Kashmir when he meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of a G7 meeting in France this weekend, a senior US administration official said on Thursday.
Trump, who has offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, will press Modi on how he plans to calm regional tensions after the withdrawal of Kashmir’s autonomy, and stress the need for dialogue, the official said.
Some Indian media reports on Friday said “terrorists” were trying to enter India from Afghanistan, citing unnamed government officials.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan responded on Twitter on Friday that such claims were being made to “divert attention” away from what he called human rights violations in Kashmir.
“The Indian leadership will in all probability attempt a false flag operation to divert attention,” Khan said.
Khan’s comments came a day after United Nations experts called on the Indian government to “end the crackdown on freedom of expression, access to information and peaceful protests” in Kashmir, saying it would increase regional tensions.
“The blackout is a form of collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offense,” they said in a statement.
At least 152 people have been hurt by teargas and pellets since security forces launched their crackdown, data from the Himalayan region’s two main hospitals shows.
Large swathes of Srinagar remain deserted with shops shut except for some provision stores with shutters half-down. Police vans patrolled some areas announcing a curfew and asking people to stay indoors.
On the Dal Lake, long rows of houseboats, normally packed with tourists at this time of year, floated closed and empty, as police patrolled its mirror-calm waters in boats.