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Cheap, Low-Grade Fuel Powers Kabul Pollution

Kabul's smog
Kabul's smog
Kabul is a city of 5 million built for a few thousand. This overpopulation has taken its toll on the city’s air quality, leading to a government-decreed day off every Thursday for state workers and a plea for car-free Mondays in the smog-choked capital.

One of the main contributors to this heavy pollution is the rampant use of very low-quality fuel by Afghans for cooking, heating, and driving. Each winter RFE/RL's Radio Azadi receives reports about people being burned, scarred, or even killed while performing everyday tasks like cooking, warming up a car’s frozen engine or lighting a lamp.

The cheap fuel, which Afghan businessmen mainly import from Pakistan and Iran, is used year round in Afghanistan, with the problem becoming more acute in the winter. Snow storms and avalanches cut off villages from larger cities, driving fuel prices up dramatically as demand increases. The low-grade fuel is sold on the black market, usually being transported in containers unfit for fuel.

A student named Ahmad Shakeb recently told me that the fuel is available everywhere, “because the government does not have adequate control over exports and imports.”

Shakeb tells me that Kabul’s notoriously unreliable electricity supply translates into many people using old gas-powered lanterns for light, heat, or both. “Electricity is totally unreliable. And, I don’t really know where to go after this so-called clean or good quality oil.”

Healthcare organizations have frequently expressed concern over the problem, asking the government to put an end to the illegal trade of dirty fuel to the country. Meanwhile, Kabul based environmentalists warned the Afghan government against its fatal consequences -- not only for people using the fuel, but also for Afghanistan’s climate conditions.

Many claim that consumers of the dirty fuel -- and the Afghan government -- are aware of its possible deadly consequences. The government has actually closed a number of relatively minor businesses and gas stations in response to the public outcry. But, the problem still exists and is actually visible in the air, which can be suffocating.

Acknowledging that claim, Shakeb says pollution is on the rise and “the smog becomes thicker each time. It is sickening and unavoidable. The city breathes beneath a thick blanket of carbon.”

After the fall of the Taliban regime, thousands of people from villages moved to the capital in search of a better life. This, combined with a large population of immigrants from Pakistan, thousands of foreign troops, and NGO workers, make Kabul feel almost like a sardine can at times. A sardine can with poor public transportation and a near-constant blanket of smog enveloping it.

As for the extra day off, many Kabul residents tell Radio Azadi that they support an extra vacation day each week, but many fear it could have a negative effect on businesses, especially taxi and bus drivers. The fear is that this will worsen economic conditions for an already beleaguered workforce.

Kabul-based environmentalists and health-related organizations welcomed the announcement. Khalid Nasimi, head of the Human Rights and Environment nongovernmental organization, told RFE/RL that the move will have positive consequences in the short term. He said, "Having two days off in a week will reduce the amount of air pollution, which is strikingly on the rise."

An extra day off will do nothing, however, to curb the use of cheap, low-quality fuel that presents such a hazard to Afghans and their environment.

-- Freshta Jalalzai