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.