Air Quality in Kyrgyzstan
Air quality in Kyrgyzstan is very poor. In fact, in 2022, reports ranked Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital as having the second worst air quality in the world. Poor Kyrgyz air quality links directly to 4,000 premature deaths in 2016.

As reports, “As winter arrives in Bishkek, the sun does not shine on Kyrgyzstan’s capital city and the inhabitants have to live in a constant cloud. This is no fog created by winter precipitations, but a grey haze, slowly intoxicating the residents. That smog has become one of Bishkek’s pressing problems over the past few years.”

Causes of the Poor Air Quality

The dangerous air quality in Bishkek is a multi-dimensional problem that has several distinct roots. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) conducted a report studying the main reasons for the massive amounts of pollutants released into the air. The UNDP has stated that the three main reasons for the dangerous air quality in Bishkek are Bishkek’s large landfill, brown coal usage and vehicle emissions.

Current Landfill Problems

The intention of the landfill haunting the city of Bishkek was to contain trash for far fewer people than it does now. The Soviet Union-era government created the landfill to accommodate the trash of 400,000 people, but with the expansion of the city, Bishkek’s landfill is now responsible for keeping 1.2 million people’s trash.

Frequently the landfill catches fire and releases harmful pollutants into the air. Landfill organic material decomposition produces a highly flammable gas which leads to fires. According to the UNDP, landfill fires have “a significant effect on the air quality near the landfill and should be treated as a priority.”

Stalled Plans for a New Landfill

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and an international donor provided 22 million euros for the construction of a new and improved landfill. The plans received approval in 2013, but 10 years later, the Kyrgyz government has not yet completed the project. Chief reasons for inaction include political instability culminating with the government upheaval in 2020, government fraud and corruption and most recently, COVID-19. COVID-19 hindered progress because prices for construction materials have sky-rocketed as a result of the pandemic.

Brown Coal: Less Expensive but More Ash and Less Efficient

The massive amount of coal used in Kyrgystan greatly impairs air quality. Locally-mined “brown coal” is much cheaper than natural gas and is even cheaper than imported coal so Kyrgyzstan uses it the most. Unfortunately, brown coal has a higher ash content and pollutes more than other coal. It is also less efficient and users need to use more of it.

The Kyrgyz government attempts to help the citizens to afford to heat their homes by discounting brown coal. Due to the high demand for coal, thousands of people wait in line for multiple days in hopes of purchasing some of the coal. Also, to take advantage of this high demand, some opportunists sell government-provided coal at higher prices.

Vehicle Emissions

Vehicle emissions from cars, vans and buses are another high-polluting category. Vehicles are the highest producer of nitrogen oxide which is harmful to the human respiratory system. These emissions are also released at ground level and that produces a particularly large negative effect on the air quality. In addition, Bishkek has the capacity for about 40,000 cars but currently, people are driving about 500,000 cars on the city’s roads. Further, 60% of these vehicles date back to 1995 to 2000. As a result, they lack air purifiers and do even more damage to the air quality in Kyrgyzstan than newer cars. To make matters worse, Kyrgyzstan’s market for catalytic converters encourages many people to remove the catalytic converters from their cars and sell them. Catalytic converters are responsible for removing 90% of the potentially harmful gasses released from cars.

Health Effects From Poor Air Quality

The health effects of poor air quality range from annoying symptoms to fatal conditions. Annoying symptoms include itchy eyes and shortness of breath. More serious conditions include cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. People who are at the highest risk include those with pre-existing health conditions, senior citizens and newborns.

Efforts to Improve Kyrgyz Air Quality

One way the country is trying to make improvements is by introducing electric cars. A South Korean company announced its plan to build an electric car plant in Kyrgyzstan that initially will manufacture 65,000 electric cars annually. Once the company fully establishes the plant, it is planning on producing 300,000 electric cars annually.

The Kyrgyz government is also currently in a 2021-2023 plan for reducing air pollution in the country. Strategies listed in the plan include improving urban planning, developing and preserving green areas, taking action on the new landfill project and improving methods for supplying heating.

While the air quality in Kyrgyzstan is among some of the worst in the world, there is hope for the future. With Kyrgyzstan in the middle of its current plan, hopefully, positive change in the air quality will result in positive change.

– David Keenan
Photo: Flickr

People Living in LandfillsIn the outskirts of Jakarta, a city home to 10 million people, sits the largest uncovered landfill in Southeast Asia, Bantar Gebang. In Bantar Gebang, mounds of trash sit 10 stories high. Shockingly, Bantar Gebang is also home to approximately 18,000 people, people who are living in landfills and who make a living collecting plastics and valuables to sell for their day’s wages.

The situation in Jakarta is sadly common. In the developing world, open dumps are the most common way to dispose of waste that accompanies economic growth. Additionally, developing countries account for roughly 80 to 90 percent of the world’s mismanaged waste. It is therefore difficult to visualize those living in landfills amid this mismanaged waste. However, this reality is important to confront because the lives of those living in landfills depict the complications of poverty in the developing world.

Living in Landfills

For many, living in landfills is the only option. Those who uncover valuable rubbish or recyclables can earn up to $2 a day. Unfortunately, this is considered a modest earning, as 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. Recycling companies also rely on landfill workers, sometimes called ragpickers. Subsequently, there remains a strong economic incentive for these workers and their families. In fact, these landfill workers are technically the only means of waste management in many cities.

The living conditions of the landfills have damaging effects on workers’ health. Near the Ghazipur landfill in Delhi, a local doctor says she sees nearly 70 people a day with diseases linked to the toxic pollutants in landfills. Most families, sadly, cannot afford to relocate, because they are paying for medical aid and food.

Managing Landfills

As for the existence of the landfills, there seems to be no end in sight. For most of the developing world, exponential growth in urban populations has directly lead to increased production of waste. For example, Delhi’s population in India has risen from 12 to 19 million in the past 20 years. Over that same period, daily waste has increased from 8 to 20 million pounds of trash in the city dumps. The sheer growth in waste has inundated residents, local leaders and politicians alike on regarding what to do with these landfills.

Many politicians lack the power and popular support to battle the mismanagement of landfills. Some politicians and supervisors of landfills fear closing down landfills will result in violent protests from ragpickers who have lost their jobs. Moreover, creating sanitary landfills would cost Delhi $75 million alone. Turning to “greener” alternatives, such as waste-to-energy treatment, are inaccessible due to a lack of funding, regulatory protection, technical skills and infrastructure.

Regulating Future Waste

The complex issues that surround the landfills speak to the many different ways to approach solutions to the problem.

  • Political: In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition launched the Municipal Solid Waste Initiative in 2015. This initiative aims to help city government draft plans outlining projects, such as introducing organic material waste diversion and education programs for citizen awareness. The CCAC has completed 30 city baseline waste assessments and 16 city waste management work plans worldwide.
  • Medical: Because of the toxic waste and pollutants in open landfills, UNICEF has begun working with primary schools to educate children on the importance of hygiene and sanitation. UNICEF seeks to do this through WASH (water supply, sanitation, hygiene) policies set out by the Indonesian government.
  • Economic: The World Bank works in a variety of countries seeking to bolster sanitation infrastructure through economic investment and funding. In 2012, the World Bank loans funded the rehabilitation of the main landfill site in Azerbijan, increasing the population the landfill serves from 53 percent, in 2008, to 74 percent. The World Bank also invests in building infrastructure in other countries, including Indonesia, Argentina and Morocco.
  • Sociopolitical: Buenos Aires, Argentina established a policy to be a zero-waste city by 2020. Like “ragpickers” in Bantar Gebang, 5,000 cartoneros in Argentina work in city-built warehouses, sorting and collecting trash each night. This allows them to work in better living conditions and negotiate prices with recycling companies as a collective entity. Buenos Aires shows the success of grassroots and people-first solutions that improve landfill workers’ economic, social, medical and political poverty.

Understanding the despair and dignity that “ragpickers” live with is important in understanding the developing world and building effective solutions, because the plight of landfill workers is not only monetary or political.

– Luke Kwong
Photo: Pixabay