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U.S. Military Waste A Smoldering Afghan Health Issue

U.S. Marines burn human waste as they clean their lavatories at the Musa Qala base in the southern Helmand Province. Officials say the military is trying to reduce the incineration of solid waste, but many Afghans see little progress.
U.S. Marines burn human waste as they clean their lavatories at the Musa Qala base in the southern Helmand Province. Officials say the military is trying to reduce the incineration of solid waste, but many Afghans see little progress.
Rahim spends most of his day selling merchandise to foreign soldiers out of the ramshackle hut he calls his shop. It's a living -- he earns enough to support his wife and four children -- but like many locals he feels his life in Bagram, north of Kabul, is killing him.

"It's the air," Rahim says as he coughs violently and points to the plumes of black and green smoke rising in the distance. "It's making me and my family sick."

Rahim, who provides only his first name, pins the blame squarely on Bagram air base, home to about 30,000 U.S. and coalition forces as well as thousands of foreign and local contractors. Located only a few miles from Bagram city, the base houses a large airstrip, dozens of residential halls, and even a modern shopping mall that boasts a Burger King and a Pizza Hut.

According to Rahim, the source of the smoke is a huge burning pit at the base -- an open dump site the U.S. military uses to dispose of trash at the base. He believes harmful chemicals are released in the burning process, causing various forms of ailments and disease in the areas surrounding the base.

"They're burning TVs, radios, mobile phones, and all sorts of electronics. It doesn't matter how much we have protested, neither the government nor the Americans have listened to our concerns," Rahim says. "They shouldn't do this. Our children are getting sick because the wind is blowing the smoke inside our homes."

Rahim's concerns are shared by other locals. Farhad, who has worked at the air base since 2008, describes the burn pit as the size of "several soccer fields." A bulldozer pushes waste into the pit, located at the outer edge of the base, and it burns 24 hours a day, he says.

"I've witnessed the Americans dumping and then burning electronics like computers and television sets, ...things that are renewed every six months," Farhad says. "The smoke gives off a very bad odor that smells like plastic, which is entering our homes. It is making everyone sick, especially the children. This has been happening ever since the Americans entered Bagram 10 years ago."

Effects Of Pollution

Comparative statistics documenting a rise in cases of illnesses and disease due to exposure to the burning pits are not available. No official study has been carried out, in part due to the lack of proper testing equipment and expertise among health officials in Afghanistan.

But the effects on the local population are readily obvious, according to Dr. Mustafa Siddiqui, a health specialist from Kabul. He says using fuel to burn waste contaminates the air with toxic pollutants such as lead, mercury, and cadmium, and can cause respiratory illnesses, chronic allergies, and various cancers.

"People living near the military base in Bagram are coughing up blood, find it difficult to breathe, and have problems with their kidneys and livers," Dr. Siddiqui says.

A U.S. Air Force heavy cargo plane takes off from Bagram air base, which sees frequent air traffic.
A U.S. Air Force heavy cargo plane takes off from Bagram air base, which sees frequent air traffic.

Steven Markowitz, professor of environmental sciences at Queens College, City University of New York, says U.S. soldiers returning from Afghanistan are also showing significant increases in respiratory problems. He attributes this to the soldiers being exposed to open burn pits at Bagram and other U.S. military bases.

"If we know American soldiers are being affected, then we know it is quite possible for local laborers on bases and the local population to be affected," Markowitz says.

Few Signs Of Progress

The United States has 100,000 troops and thousands more contractors in Afghanistan, with each producing 4.5 kilograms of waste each day, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Commander Robert Mulac, public affairs officer for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), says burning pits are the most "expeditious way" of getting rid of the waste.

"The reason for the use of burn pits is that, because of the very large volume of solid waste generated by contingency operations, it is impracticable to landfill the waste without first substantially reducing the volume," Mulac says.

Mulac adds that USFOR-A is implementing measures to reduce the amount of open-air burning, including the installation of low-emission incinerators at Bagram air base.

But Ghulam Mohammad Malikyar, who heads Afghanistan's National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA), says military officials at Bagram have not done enough.

"From what we can see and the reports we receive from the ground, it is clear that this issue has not been taken seriously," Malikyar says. "We have recommended that they use recycling and introduce clean incinerators but nothing has come of it. The process toward changing this practice has been very slow."

Malikyar says that he has met with numerous military officials at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul and at Bagram air base over the past two years. "We have told them that burning waste in the open is strictly forbidden under Afghan law," he says. "We have told them that the smoke is making people sick and damaging the environment."

Convincing The Military To Change

Afghan laws forbidding burn pits are not applicable to U.S. and other international forces. But according to Malikyar, the lease agreement at Bagram and other foreign bases denies local investigators permission to access and monitor a military facility.

"These conditions are hampering efforts to overhaul the use of burn pits in other military bases and army facilities as well," Malikyar says. "This problem is occurring in military bases around the country. But it is up to foreign officials to implement the changes; we cannot."

Air pollution in many Afghan cities is a serious health problem.
Air pollution in many Afghan cities is a serious health problem.

NEPA, which regulates, monitors, and enforces environmental laws in the country, first received complaints about the U.S. military's use of fire pits in Bagram at the local level in 2009.

"Previously, there was no problem. The policy in Bagram was to sell outdated equipment to local contractors who would, in turn, sell them as second-hand goods," Malikyar says. "But this practice ended two years ago as more waste piled up.... With waste piling up, the fire pits were used by the military more regularly and now they are burning waste all the time."

In the past two years, NEPA's regional office in Bagram has interviewed dozens of locals who say they are suffering from various respiratory disorders, and eye and nasal problems originating from toxic smoke from Bagram air base.

NEPA's local environment-monitoring office in Bagram forwarded the grievances to Malikyar, who in turn notified U.S. authorities.

Nowhere To Turn

Located throughout Afghanistan, the U.S. military's burn pits have compounded the serious environmental and health issues facing Afghanistan. Many cities in the country already suffer from a lack of sewage and sanitation systems, growing slums, crumbling infrastructure, and rapid population growth.

Constant power cuts and the absence of a national natural-gas grid also mean that many households, including Rahim's in Bagram, use wood, coal, and heating oil for cooking and heating.

For Rahim, protecting the country's deteriorating environment is paramount to creating better health conditions for ordinary Afghans.

Consoling his two sick daughters as they lie on his lap, Rahim says his family is experiencing firsthand the detrimental effects of environmental neglect. He considers leaving for good, but therein lies the catch -- by leaving for a healthier life, he would have to give up his family's livelihood.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Homayoon Shinwary contributed to this report
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.