From tomorrow, 1 December, until the end of the Afghan year (20 March), Kabul will enjoy a proper, two-day weekend. Every Thursday, government offices will be closed and workers asked to stay at home. But it is not a social achievement – it is a smog-induced extra holiday, an attempt to give this polluted city a chance to breathe.
Walk up any of the mountains around Kabul and it is difficult to see the city for the brown air which covers it – in English, I’d say – like a shroud or a pall. That death-related imagery is not misplaced: according to the Ministry of Public Health, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases resulting from the pollution hasten the deaths of more than 3000 extra people every year. Particulates get into the respiratory system, damaging lung tissue and causing cancer, asthma and chronic lung disease. This week, walking in the city, I felt like I’d eaten dust and breathed in whole mountains of it.
So the news of the weekly extra holiday was welcome. The order has come from the cabinet meeting under President Hamed Karzai, this week. According to Hewad daily, the ministers were motivated by the terrible living conditions for Kabulis, the ‘substantial worsening of air quality’ and the decreasing of the percentage of oxygen in the air.* Cutting the working week in government offices to five days will mean a day less of running the many buses which take state employees to and from work and block the few remaining through roads with caravans of gigantic second-hand junk that are difficult to manoeuvre.
Prince Mustapha, the head of Afghanistan’s Environmental Agency (un-named in the newspaper), has appealed to all Kabul citizens to act according to their morals, to cut down as much as possible on private and public transport on Thursdays and also Mondays. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Interior and Mayor’s office have been tasked with collecting diesel generators and with organising the traffic better.
Long gone is the city of bicycles I remember from ten years ago. The street in Shahr-e Now where I’m pictured among other cyclists was virtually car-free in 2002 (and more so under the Taleban who were notorious in confiscating cars so that many people preferred to hide them instead of driving them); now it is usually quicker to walk than drive down it, such is the permanent congestion there. Economic growth, population growth, a ten-fold increase in the number of cars means Kabul is now a clogged city.
Its streets are congested, with cars running on dirty or watered-down fuel, and a lack of any real public transport system. Electricity supply, even though it is much more dependable this year, does not yet cover all the city and rarely reaches the 220 Volt threshold. When it fails, a myriad small and inefficient generators start to drone, at least in the richer neighbourhoods, pumping out a whole range of nasty fumes. Bukharis everywhere burn wood, diesel or rubbish. The climate is not suited to these industrial levels of pollution. There has been no rain for months to keep the dust down on the unpaved streets, only continuous high pressure systems which trap the air in the natural bowl created by Kabul’s mountains.
The political economy only exacerbates this onslaught on the environment. Private enrichment and public pauperisation means those who build palaces don’t contribute to paving the pavements and roads outside their grand homes. And why make a fuss about irregular electricity supply if you can pay bribes to get the lights going continuously or run a generator? Or worry about potholes and unpaved roads, if you ride in a land-cruiser which relishes the bumps? It will be interesting, then, to see how successful this attempt by the government to galvanise a public response to private pollution will be.
*According to Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency,reported by NPR, the level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was 52 ppm (parts per million) on an average day in Kabul in 2008. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency national air quality standard is 0.053 ppm. Similarly, sulfur dioxide (SO2) was 37 ppm on an average day in Kabul; in the US, the standard is 0.030 ppm. In 2002, or so, a whole Canadian ISAF contingent applied for an immediate relocation home after the soldiers learned about all the poison you can find in the Kabul air.
Earlier this year, a study has ranked Kabul as the city with the tenth worst air in the world.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020