Smog veils Central Asia cities as smoky stoves choke locals

  • Tuesday 18, February 2020 08:09 AM
Sharjah24 – AFP: Snow-capped peaks used to be clearly visible from the streets of Almaty and Bishkek, two of the largest cities in Central Asia that both lie in plains surrounded by mountains.
But now a heavy cloud of dark smog often blots out the view as air pollution regularly soars to levels comparable to those in New Delhi and Lahore, even though Almaty and Bishkek have fewer people and industries than their Indian and Pakistani counterparts.

In the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, a city of one million, and Kazakhstan's second city of Almaty, which is twice as large, the onset of winter prompts a surge in pollution as people burn coal and other dirty fuels in stoves to heat their homes.

One of those monitoring the situation is Kyrgyz environmental activist Kunduz Adylbekova, who experiences the problem firsthand.

In the area of small private houses where she lives on the outskirts of Bishkek, the air quality is particularly bad.

"The air here has a kind of heavy feel," said Adylbekova, a programme manager at Archa Initiative non-profit

Many locals use highly polluting stoves to heat their homes and boil water because they are not hooked up to mains gas. Large numbers of ageing cars and trucks exacerbate the situation.

In this district, readings of PM 2.5 -- a measure of fine particles in the air -- regularly reach levels that the United States Environmental Protection Agency defines as hazardous to human health.

Sometimes readings are four times higher than the EPA minimum "hazardous" level, Adylbekova said, with locals suffering the ill-effects.

"Residents are often ill, some suffer from lung problems."

While environmental groups have long sounded the alarm, now that people can easily access real-time air quality measurements online, pollution has become a talking point, particularly on social media.

Governments have been slower to acknowledge the problem, however.

This month, an online petition demanding that Almaty's authorities declare the poor air quality as an emergency gained 17,000 signatures on the first day.

The city administration responded by saying that it is looking into ways to modernise the main coal-burning power station to make it less polluting. However it said no decision on the upgrade will be made until the end of the year and ignored calls for an independent assessment of the plant.