Afghan capital’s air pollution may be even deadlier than war

Old vehicles pump toxins into the air, as do electrical generators using poor quality fuel. Coal, garbage, plastic and rubber are burned by poor people at home, as well as at the many brick kilns, public baths and bakeries. (File/Photo)
Updated 13 November 2019

Afghan capital’s air pollution may be even deadlier than war

  • People are dying, not from the war, but the toxic air they breathe in
  • Research group State of Global Air says more than 26,000 deaths could be attributed due to the pollution

KABUL, Afghanistan: Yousuf fled with his family from his home in eastern Afghanistan eight years ago to escape the war, but he couldn’t escape tragedy. In the capital, Kabul, five of his children died, not from violence or bombings, but from air pollution, worsened by bitter cold and poverty.
At the camp for displaced people they live in, they and other families keep warm and cook by burning the garbage that surrounds them. One by one over the years, each of the children got chest infections and other maladies from the pollution and never made it to age seven, he told The Associated Press. The 60-year-old has nine surviving children.




Yusouf, who escaped war in eastern Afghanistan to safeguard his family, speaks during an interview in Kabul, Afghanistan. In the capital, Kabul, five of his children died, not from violence or bombings, but from air pollution, worsened by bitter cold and poverty. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

“We didn’t have enough money for the doctor and medicine ... I can barely feed my children,” said Yousuf, who works as a porter in a vegetable market earning barely a dollar a day. Like many Afghans he uses only one name.
Afghanistan’s pollution may be even deadlier than its war, now 18 years long.
There are no official statistics on how many Afghans die of pollution-related illnesses, but the research group State of Global Air said more than 26,000 deaths could be attributed to it in 2017. In contrast, 3,483 civilians were killed that year in the Afghan war, according to the United Nations.
Kabul, a city of some 6 million, has become one of the most polluted cities in the world — ranking in the top of the list among other polluted capitals such as India’s New Delhi or China’s Beijing. Decades of war have wrecked the city’s infrastructure and caused waves of displaced people.
On most days, a pall of smog and smoke lies over the city. Old vehicles pump toxins into the air, as do electrical generators using poor quality fuel. Coal, garbage, plastic and rubber are burned by poor people at home, as well as at the many brick kilns, public baths and bakeries. Many apartment buildings have no proper sanitation system, and garbage is piled on roadsides and sidewalks.
The large majority of victims are poisoned by the air in their own homes, as families burn whatever they can to keep warm in Kabul’s winters, with frequent sub-zero temperatures and snow. Children and elderly are particularly vulnerable. At least 19,400 of the 2017 deaths were attributable to household pollution, which also contributed to a loss of two years and two months of life expectancy at birth, according to the State of Global Air survey.




Old vehicles are pumping poisonous fumes into the air. (AFP)

Yousuf’s camp, home to more than a hundred families, has no proper water or sanitation system and is surrounded by garbage dumps. His and other families’ children search through the garbage for paper, cloth, sticks or plastic, anything that can be burned for fuel.
“We are so poor, and we have lots of problems, we don’t have enough money for medicine, wood or coal for heating, so this is our life, my children collect garbage from dump yards and we use it for cooking and heating to keep the kids warm,” he added.
Decades of war have worsened the damage to Afghanistan’s environment and have made it a huge challenge to address them. Environmental issues are far down the list of priorities for a government struggling with basic security issues, rampant corruption and a plunging economy.
Three or four decades ago, “it was a wish for people to come to Kabul and breath this air,” said Ezatullah Sediqi, deputy director for the National Environmental Protection Agency. But in the wars since, “we lost all our urban infrastructure for water, electricity, public transportation, green areas, all these things,” he said.
Kabul’s environmental department has launched a new program to control old vehicles, one significant source of pollution.
“Fighting pollution is an important as fighting terrorism,” said Mohammad Kazim Humayoun, the department’s director.
Authorities warn that this winter is expected to be colder than usual and fear that will only increase the use of pollution-creating fuels to keep warm. The Kabul municipality has also called on residents to stop burning garbage for heat and instead use fuel.




The wife of Yousuf who fled from their home in eastern Afghanistan, burns plastic to make tea at a camp for displaced people, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP /Rahmat Gul)

“If everyone follows the instructions laid out by Kabul Municipality, the pollution could be controlled,” the municipality’s spokeswoman, Nargis Mohmand, said. But if not, “then we might live with this untreatable wound for years to come.”
But fuel is either too expensive or not available for many in Kabul. Electrical heaters are too pricey for most, and power outages are frequent.
Doctors at Kabul’s Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital say they’ve seen the numbers of patients with pollution-related illnesses increase, though they could not give exact figures. In the winter, hundreds of children a day sometimes come in, suffering from respiratory illnesses, according to hospital officials.
Dr. Saifullah Abassin, a specialist trainer at the hospital, said his ward has a capacity of 10 patients but often has three times that number.
The government has launched an environmental awareness campaign. Ads on TV, programs at schools and universities and sermons at mosques talk about pollution’s harm to society and tell listeners about steps to reduce it.
But there are steps the state needs to take, like encouraging the planting of trees and creating green spaces, as well as implementing a city master plan to stop unplanned development around the capital, often a source of pollution because of their lack of services.
Sediqi, of the NEPA, said that ever since the first post-Taliban government was created in 2001, there was no planning on urban infrastructure, which left individuals to build on their own.
“Unfortunately, that led to unplanned development,” he said. “So now we have numerous urban problems and challenges and organizational challenges, which is causing the environmental pollution.”


Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say

Updated 13 July 2020

Sindhi, Baloch ‘separatists’ forming ties in Sindh, Pakistani officials say

  • Follows little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army carrying out attacks

KARACHI: Investigations into a spate of recent attacks in southern Sindh province have led Pakistani officials to believe there are growing links between Sindhi separatists and militant groups from the insurgency-racked Balochistan province, officers with knowledge of the investigation have told Arab News.

However, experts warn that it may be too early to assume a “nexus” between the groups.

Late last month, gunmen attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange building in the city of Karachi, the capital of Sindh, killing two guards and a policeman before security forces killed all four attackers.

Counterterrorism officials said that the attack had been claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a separatist group from the southwestern province of Balochistan, which has been designated as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU.

Just weeks earlier, three consecutive explosions killed four people, including two soldiers in Sindh. A shadowy secessionist organization, the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), which wants the province to break away from the Pakistani federation, claimed responsibility for the attacks. This week, SRA also claimed a grenade attack on a Karachi bakery in which a retired paramilitary Rangers official was killed. 

SRA and two other Sindhi groups were banned by the government in May this year. 

Speaking to the media after the attack on the stock exchange building,  Sindh Rangers  chief  Major General Omer Ahmed Bukhari said that the attacks proved that “hostile intelligence agencies” were working to forge a “nexus” between Sindhi and Balochi insurgent groups, adding that he believed current investigations would establish this beyond doubt. 

In a statement emailed to the media after the stock exchange attack, the BLA admitted that it had “complete support” from Sindhi groups. 

“Today both the nations (Baloch and Sindhi) are fighting for the independence of their homelands against Pakistan,” the BLA statement said. “We had the complete support of the Sindhi nation in today’s attack, and it shows a strong brotherly bond between both the nations.”

Separatists have been fighting security forces for years in Balochistan over what they see as the unfair exploitation of the province’s vast mineral wealth. Insurgents are also opposed to — and attack projects linked to — China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative in the resource-rich province. 

Pakistan has regularly blamed India for supporting Baloch separatists, a charge that Delhi denies.

Last month, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told parliament that he had no doubt India was behind the attack on the stock exchange building, which India promptly denied. Khan offered no evidence for his allegation, but he said that there had been intelligence reports warning of attacks in Pakistan and he had informed his Cabinet about the threats.

Sindhi separatists such as the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army have carried out low-intensity attacks in the past, including blowing up train tracks. Their attacks, however, have been less violent than that of neighboring Balochistan where separatists have attacked a Chinese consulate, a leading hotel chain and on many occasions killed security officials patrolling a coastal highway.

Now, officials fear that Sindhi groups might be able to enhance their capacity to carry our deadlier attacks with help from Baloch militants and other hostile groups. 

“It can be a source of lawlessness in the future if this nexus is not broken,” said a police officer involved in investigating a “possible nexus between Sindhi and Baloch insurgent groups, backed by India.” He requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media about the issue.

The police official said that Baloch groups already had “some capability” to launch damaging attacks, “but once there is a nexus, it can also be helpful for Sindhi nationalists, and that’s worrisome.”

A senior intelligence officer, who also declined to be named, said there had been a noticeable increase in the frequency of attacks by Sindhi groups, which pointed to the fact that they might have more experienced helpers.

“Increase in capability (through a nexus with Baloch groups) will only be proved if they launch more sophisticated attacks,” he said. “Law enforcement agencies are absolutely aware and alert to the dangers posed by the growth of this nexus.”

Raja Umar Khattab, a senior counter-terrorism officer in Karachi, said that while teaming up with other groups might enhance the capacity of Sindhi nationalists, he did not see the nexus posing a significant threat in the near future. 

“The nexus can supplement the capacity of Sindhi sub-nationalists,” Khattab said, “but they will not be able to create any big law and order situation due to the preparedness of the law enforcement agencies.”

Sindh’s chief of Rangers has also said that Baloch and Sindh separatists were cosying up to the London faction of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Pakistani political party whose leader Altaf Hussain lives in exile in London. 

“Hostile intelligence agencies strive to make a nexus of the cells, sleeper cells and facilitators of the remnant terrorist organizations (separatists), which include the remnants of the MQM,” Bukhari said during a press conference after the stock exchange attack.

The MQM, one of Pakistan’s most prominent political parties, is mostly comprised of descendants of Muslim Urdu-speaking people who migrated to Pakistan around the time of the partition of India in 1947. 

Once able to control Sindh province with an iron grip, the party’s fortunes have waned in recent years, particularly since 2013 when the military launched a crackdown against criminal groups and militants as murder rates soared and mutilated bodies were dumped in alleyways daily. Many saw the operation, centered in Karachi, as a pretext to wrest control of the port city from the MQM, an accusation that security forces deny.

While Karachi crime rates have dropped sharply and many local businesses have welcomed the operation, allegations of brutal and illegal methods have remained. 

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has in the past referred dozens of cases of illegal abductions of MQM workers to the Pakistan government, concluding a “pattern of specific targeting” of the MQM by Rangers, which the paramilitary force denies.

Before the 2013 operation, law enforcement agencies and many Karachi residents accused the MQM of racketeering, the abduction, torture and murder of opponents and holding the city to ransom by calling mass strikes at will.

On Wednesday, the MQM’s Qasim Ali Raza denied that the party had any links to separatists or attacks in Sindh and urged the state to stop the “blind and fraudulent” process of blaming the party. 

The Karachi-based political analyst, Mazhar Abbas, said that a nexus between the MQM and separatist groups, if it existed, would not work. 

“The workers of MQM neither accepted the alliance with Sindhi nationalists (in the past),” he said, “nor will they subscribe to the current idea of a friendship.”

Other analysts said that there was as yet no “solid” evidence to claim the nexus existed. 

“Politically, there has been some closeness between Sindhi and Baloch nationalists, but speaking about a military nexus, one needs to have solid evidence at hand,” said Sohail Sangi, a Karachi-based analyst who closely observes separatist groups.

However, Anwar Sajjadi, a Quetta-based security analyst, said that he believed a growing nexus was a possibility, adding it was no coincidence that Sindhi groups had recently started voicing opposition to Chinese projects being built under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) umbrella, which Baloch groups have long opposed.

“We have seen uniformity in their stances,” Sajjadi said. “Same stance on CPEC and other (rights) issues is bringing all these groups closer.”

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