In winter, Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul, is not for the faint-hearted—below-zero temperatures are not uncommon and snowfalls are frequent and sometimes heavy. With an average temperature of -1°C, January is the coldest month, with occasional drops to -25°C. Located at a high altitude of approximately 1,800 m above sea level, in a narrow valley between the Hindu Kush mountains, Kabul is one the world’s highest capitals.
Afghanistan has, for many years, borne the brunt of a much-publicized protracted armed conflict. Meanwhile, away from the glare of publicity, Afghans—and in particular Kabul’s six million residents—are wrestling with another silent but deadly killer: air pollution.
“In the past, the air was nice and less contaminated in Kabul city,” says Nadira Rashidi, a long-time city resident. “We had a lower population, and more rainfall. Prior to the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, people were keen to plant trees in their residential compounds and in communal spaces. They were also keen to take collective action in cleaning different areas. This is called hashar in Afghanistan.”
Like any major city, Kabul has various sources of air pollution. For several weeks in a row, most often in the cold winter months, the city gets blanketed by a toxic haze of particulate matter—small and often invisible particles of dust and soot.
Under normal circumstances, warm air close to the ground gradually rises, carrying pollutants with it and dispersing them. However, when cold air remains close to the ground—under a so-called thermal inversion—pollution accumulates at the ground level.
Sources of air pollution include old cars, poor quality fuel, people burning trash, industrial brick kilns, small-scale smelting plants and foundries. That’s in addition to pollution coming from bakeries, restaurants and wedding halls as well as power plants, generators, household cooking stoves and heaters.
A comprehensive analysis of air pollution in Kabul has not yet been conducted. However, there have been measurements to assess levels of particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen, oxides of sulfur and carbon monoxide.
The government is responsible for air quality monitoring in Kabul and it is now conducting spot monitoring of air quality around the city using portable equipment.
Many people are also using the AirVisual website or its mobile app for information on Kabul’s air quality. However, this information may not always be reliable or representative of the actual situation, as it comes from a single data point in one of the most congested areas of the city. There is thus a need for more comprehensive and accurate monitoring of air pollution to provide more reliable data.
“Human beings play an important role in polluting the environment. Women play an important role in this regard as they must raise and train their children. With an increase in air pollution, we are seeing a new generation whose growth is stunted. Pollution also negatively impacts pregnant women and their unborn children. Toxic air also causes respiratory diseases and even cancer,” says Nadira who is also Head of Gender at the National Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the State of Global Air 2019 report, current levels of air pollution have reduced worldwide life expectancy by one year and eight months. This means a person born today will die 20 months sooner, on average, than would be expected in the absence of air pollution. The report also notes that toxic air reduces average life expectancy by almost as much as tobacco use.
The problem posed by air pollution has drawn the attention of Afghan legislators. In December 2018, the Wolesi Jirga, the country’s Lower House of Parliament met officials from the Ministry of Public Health and the National Environmental Protection Agency to discuss air quality.
In response to these concerns, and in consultation with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the UN Environment team in Kabul conducted a rapid assessment of the concentration of airborne particulate matter of 10 micrometres or less in diameter (PM10) in the UN Operational Complex in Afghanistan and the UNAMA Alpha Compound.
The assessment comprised measurements taken every 15 minutes over several days in January and February 2019 under various weather conditions (clear and overcast skies, rain, snow, etc.). Measurements were taken using Thermo Fischer Scientific PDR 1000 monitors that measure real-time presence of atmospheric particulate matter.
In the UN Operational Complex, indoor concentrations of PM10 were 53.9 per cent lower than outdoor concentrations without use of an air purifier. With an air purifier, indoor PM10 concentrations that were 98.9 per cent lower than outdoors and 97.3 per cent lower than indoor concentrations without an air purifier.
At the Alpha Compound, comparisons of the readings between outdoors and indoors revealed a significant difference, with indoor concentrations of PM10 being 36.4 per cent lower than outdoor concentrations.
“The World Health Organization air quality guidelines for PM10 consider an average of 50 µg.m‑3 per 24-hour period as being permissible. The assessment showed that using an air purifier can be very effective in improving indoor air quality to conform with World Health Organization guidelines,” says Dirk Snyman, UN Environment’s Action on Climate Expert in Afghanistan.
“However, there is need for a scientifically robust assessment of air quality using a larger number of air quality monitoring devices in multiple locations and over much longer monitoring periods. The results of this rapid assessment are thus only indicative and exploratory and should be interpreted as such,” says Snyman.
Since the beginning of March 2019, UNAMA Mission Support has undertaken continuous monitoring of airborne particulate matter in the UN Operational Complex in Afghanistan using an Aeroqual S500 monitor. During this period, all readings were below the WHO guideline values.
Learn more about the global #BreatheLife campaign, led by the World Health Organization, UN Environment and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition, which supports a range of cleaner air initiatives that cover 55 cities, regions, and countries, reaching over 153 million people.
Air pollution is the theme for World Environment Day on 5 June 2019. The quality of the air we breathe depends on the lifestyle choices we make every day. Learn more about how air pollution affects you, and what is being done to clean the air. What are you doing to reduce your emissions footprint and #BeatAirPollution?
The 2019 World Environment Day is hosted by China.