Toxic Pollution Replaces Taliban Threat for Many Afghans in Kabul

Photo: Karim Haidari,

KABUL, Afghanistan – Kabul air was once filled with the aroma of so many wild flowers that it tempted legendary Mughal Emperor Babur to wish for his burial there. Unlike in the 16th century, breathing has recently become hazardous in the capital of Afghanistan due to mounting air pollution.

The scale of the problem becomes clear if one simply strolls any street in downtown Kabul or reaches the majestic Babur Garden where the emperor’s grave is located. The city’s air is filled with smoke from vehicles, dust and gas, coal or garbage-burning heaters. Local hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, young and old, suffering from the respiratory chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), acute lower respiratory infections and other health concerns caused by the polluted air.

The Globe Post visited the Janat Gulzada Hospital in eastern Bagrami Township, a relatively poor neighborhood in Kabul, to see the impacts of pollution on the marginalized communities in the area.

Haji Hafeez brought his two children, a son and an elder daughter, to the hospital due to a cough and runny nose. “I have no more patience left, one after another everyone is getting sick. Where can I find enough money for medicine?” he asked.

The private hospital charges no fee on Thursdays as a service to the community, a day when the hospital is visited by hundreds of patients from the poor neighborhoods nearby.

The situation in public hospitals is not any different. Last week, the local broadcaster Tolo News quoted Dr. Mohammad Musa Qane, head of the Intensive Care Unit for children at the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital, as saying that doctors have to treat and lay up to six children on a single bed designed for one child. This public hospital alone receives up to 1,000 children on a daily basis.

Thanks to the relative peace, opportunities for jobs, studies, and international presence, Kabul has hastily evolved from a 20th-century city into one of the fastest developing hubs in a decade’s time. However, little to no city planning has seriously undermined basic municipal services and regulations.

The city had lost much of its forest cover to the rages of civil war in the 1990s and illegal settlements on its hills in the years afterward. Levels of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide are high in the local air that severely damages respiratory system, lung tissues, and can cause cancer and premature deaths.

According to the National Environment Protection Agency (NEPA), low-quality of fuel and material burnt in winter to warm homes, offices and “hamams” — public bathrooms — is responsible for the rise of air pollution in Kabul.

A United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report for South Asia issued on December 6, indicated that when children breathe toxic air, it potentially puts their brain development at risk. Children are also highly vulnerable to air pollution because they breathe more rapidly and their physical defenses and immunities are not fully developed.

The report, titled “Danger in the Air: How Air Pollution can affect brain development in young children,” said South Asia has the largest proportion of babies living in the worst-affected areas. According to U.N. estimates, 12.2 million babies reside in localities where outdoor air pollution is six times higher than international limits set by the World Health Organization.

Feridoon Aryan, UNICEF Afghanistan communications director, told The Globe Post that the country is cited in the report as one of six states that continue to use leaded gasoline, which has been found to cause serious damage to children’s nervous system and cognitive development.

UNICEF said no society could afford to ignore air pollution. The agency has outlined urgent steps that could help to reduce the impact of air pollution on babies’ growing brains. It has also recommended reducing air pollution by investing in cleaner, renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuel combustion and provide affordable access to public transport. An increase in green spaces in urban areas, as well as better waste management options could also help to resolve existing problems.

While any steps to address the crisis are yet to be taken, worried parents like Mr. Hafeez think waiting for measures to be implemented is not an option.

“I have no choice but to take all my children either back to my village in Ghazni province, or move further south to Pakistan because there is no possibility in sight for improvement of air at least in the winter,” he told The Globe Post explaining his reasons for temporary migration caused by environmental pollution.