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Slow Suffocation in Central Asia

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Crossroads Asia | Environment | Central Asia

Slow Suffocation in Central Asia

A lack of political will on the part of Central Asian governments prevents the region from dealing seriously with its air quality problem.

Slow Suffocation in Central Asia
Credit: Depositphotos

Another winter in Central Asia is coming to an end, and smog has loomed over the cities of the region for many months now. At a glance, IQAir’s air quality map shows unhealthy or toxic air quality across numerous urban settlements in the Central Asian region on most days. It paints a disturbing picture that seems to only get worse despite increased focus on this systemic problem in recent years. People are simply not being given any meaningful incentives to reduce emissions, and industry and states are not making any significant changes either.

The Kyrgyzstani authorities have recognized pollution as a major cause of health problems, and a 2019 medical study concluded that the situation in Kazakhstan’s major cities presented an “unacceptable risk” for the population. However, despite the proven adverse effects on health of poor air, governments in Central Asia have done little to date to tackle the problem. 

Even when authorities recognize the problem, they often fail to follow international recommendations. The authorities of Uzbekistan, for instance, stated last month that the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines are difficult to follow, and have instead developed their own guidelines. 

But, as our research on the environment in Central Asia indicates, the gap between governmental declarations of intent and concrete implementation, combined with authoritarian states’ obstruction of civil society’s work, and lack of recognition of civil society organizations as valuable partners, means that the situation is unlikely to improve in the near future. Meanwhile, the air quality is getting worse. In cities like Dushanbe, for example, although air quality improved in the 1990s and 2000s and levels in 2015-2016 were better than ever, since then, the picture has completely reversed and air quality levels have returned to toxic, Soviet-era levels.

The type of pollution that we mainly see in Central Asia is known as particulate matter (PM) 2.5, exposure to which can engender serious health consequences including heart attacks, asthma, and other breathing problems. Children are at particularly high risk of developing symptoms due to PM 2.5 exposure. In Bishkek, the number of children with respiratory diseases increased by 46 percent from 2013 to 2017. The culprits generating PM 2.5 include road vehicles, Soviet-era coal fired power plants, and industry. 

Anyone who has been to Central Asia will know that old cars and trucks are commonplace. A U.N. Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) study from 2017 found cars to be the single biggest source of pollution in Dushanbe. In 2021 in Almaty, 250,000 vehicles entered the city every day, on top of the 500,000 vehicles registered there. Many of these vehicles are old, with polluting engines and outdated or inexistent emission filtration systems, which lead emissions to skyrocket

Limits to road transport can be directly felt in the air quality. In 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown, limitations imposed on driving resulted in much less pollution in Bishkek, according to an academic study published in 2022. But often people have no alternative means of transport apart from cars. Public transport systems are underdeveloped, and of the five Central Asian countries, only Tashkent and Almaty have underground metro systems. Most public transport in Central Asia remains overcrowded, inefficient, and unsafe

There are many ways improve the situation, if only there is political will. In Mauritius, for instance, authorities have had success in implementing age and emission limitations on imported second-hand cars, which has resulted in the import of second-hand hybrid and electric vehicles. A similar model could be implemented in Central Asian countries, if there was political will to deal seriously with the air quality problem.

The 2017 UNECE study found that the current taxation scheme on cars in Tajikistan gives no incentive for car owners to buy newer cars that emit less. However, a 2023 Asian Development Bank (ADB) study for Bishkek suggested that car traffic could be regulated, citing experience from other Asian countries limiting car circulation on certain days depending on their license plates. Regulating car traffic and improving public transport could be a way to reduce PM 2.5 emissions from cars without putting the responsibility of resolving the problem of air pollution upon the shoulders of the often impoverished general public. 

Coal-fired power stations are also a significant source of pollutants. The ADB identified that most pollution in Bishkek, for instance, comes from private houses outside the city’s heating grid, where residents burn coal for heating purposes. The ADB suggested that electrically powered heat pump units would be a far more sustainable and affordable alternative for citizens, as Kyrgyzstan obtains its electricity predominantly from hydropower plants – a clean and sustainable energy source. However, state investment in sustainable heating should be prioritized instead of relying on the general public to change their ways. In China, Beijing has transitioned from coal-fired power plants to gas, and air quality has steadily improved as a result, even though gas is highly polluting due to methane emissions, as seen in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Pollution from heavy industry is a major issue – many remember Temirtau in Kazakhstan, which became world famous in 2018, when black snow fell over the city. The city is home to a giant steel plant, and many residents believe the black snow was caused by pollution from the factory, which is so large that it encompasses half of the city. On a more positive note, some changes are being made; for example in Dushanbe a cement factory was closed in 2023 because of air pollution in the capital. 

However, the region’s authorities treat stated intentions to improve air quality similarly to international human rights commitments; that is, they are subject to interpretation according to convenience. In an open letter in 2020, Almaty-based environmental activists drew attention to the lack of political will to deal with the problem: “Urban development strategy must be based on the findings of independent experts, not whatever numbers suit the akimat.” 

Asya Tulesova, an Almaty-based environmental and political activist, was on trial in 2019 for holding up a banner criticizing the flawed presidential elections held that year. At her trial, she gave a now famous speech, noting among other things that the main obstacle to dealing with the air quality issue in Almaty is corruption: “Corruption in law enforcement agencies or corruption in the courts, or the very corruption which keeps us from changing or somehow improving the state of the air quality in Almaty.” 

Clientelism and corruption remains a major obstacle to the improvement of lives in Central Asia, particularly when it comes to air quality. Research has shown that there is a clear correlation between corruption and carbon emissions

Tulesova’s experience is typical – activists who speak up on environmental issues often risk incurring the anger of the authorities. And yet, until environmental activists are allowed to speak up about pollution, and the media is allowed to report freely on how and why stated policies are not implemented, there will be no real change. Environmental commitments should not only be treated according to convenience by the authorities. After all, living in a world free from pollution is a human right. Meanwhile, in 2024, smog still lingers over Central Asia.