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 Novastan.org 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 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