From dusk till dawn, the Afghan capital of Kabul resembles an abandoned city these days, shrouded in the thick black smoke of mostly coal-fired heaters amid the harsh winter.
Air pollution during the winter in this fast-developing metropolis has made breathing difficult for locals, especially during the evening.
According to AirVisual, an organization that ranks the world’s cities according to an Air Quality Index (AQI), Kabul was number one on the list with the worst air quality, registering an AQI of 365 in December.
Aqeela, a 12-year-old girl, was recently brought to one of Kabul’s busiest private clinics complaining of a persistent cough and breathing issues. She was diagnosed with chronic bronchitis, a form of chronicobstructive pulmonary disease that can lead to a premature death if it is not addressed in time.
Her father, Abdullah, told Anadolu Agency Aqeela’s condition worsened a few days ago when everyone in the neighborhood started using all sorts of heating methods amid the arrival of winter.
“We’re too poor to afford firewood or electric or gas heaters, so coal is the only option for us to stay warm. There are some families in our neighborhood that even burn rubber tires or plastic waste.”
The toxic air prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) country office in Afghanistan to advise Kabul residents to avoid going outdoors.
“The weather in Kabul reaches a hazardous level of above 400 [AQI] in the evening. This is true about most parts of Kabul. Ensure you stay indoors or use masks. Children are even more susceptive," it said Monday on Twitter.
The WHO says air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide every year.
Dr. Mir Wais, an internal medicine expert in Kabul, sees young Aqeela as a classic victim of poor environmental regulation on the part of the government and the unhygienic lifestyle of the Afghan population.
“We have always been struggling with surging numbers of patients with tuberculosis -- particularly from rural areas -- mainly due to household air pollution. Now we are seeing this trend in urban areas due to the unregulated use of coal, plastic and rubber for heating,” Wais told Anadolu Agency.
Senator Mustafa Zaher, the former head of Afghanistan’s National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA), told parliament last week that in some old quarters of the city, when large chunks of populations are living in informal settlements, the AQI even reaches a deadly 700, which can immediately cause cancer.
NEPA’s director, Nek Mohammad, said the body is working tirelessly to control the situation.
“With our limited resources, we are extensively monitoring and regulating all resources and appliances potentially causing pollution in the city,” he said.
Owing to the raging war elsewhere in the country, Kabul has literally become a mini-Afghanistan, with people and industries from all over the country converging on this ancient city for its relative peace. According to official estimates, Kabul is home to some 6 million inhabitants. Historically, the city was world-renowned for its gardens and wildflowers, but all of that now feels like a forgotten past.
Today’s Kabul has no functional urban water supply or sanitation system and has a fragile and limited public transport system.
Owing to changing weather patterns, there is little or no snow or rain in the country. Rampant extraction of groundwater by a growing population digging wells also remains unchecked.
According to NEPA, underground water levels have further dropped by up to five meters this year. These factors, combined with endemic poverty, are severely affecting the overall environment in Kabul.
“Many factors are beyond our control. But if the citizens comply with their moral and legal responsibilities, it would make things very easy, as we cannot monitor each and every home,” said Mohammad./aa