Only a few years ago, not many people in Kyrgyzstan took smog seriously. Most just thought of it as a harmless fog.
These days, Bishkek regularly features near the top of lists of world cities ranked by levels of air pollution. And only now that it is too late are people starting to worry.
The causes for the situation are manifold. First, there is the dirty low-quality coal that is used by householders and the local thermal power plant. The lignite coal – also known as brown coal – that Bishkek relies on comes from the Karakeche deposit up in the highland Naryn region. It is the worst of both worlds: It is relatively inefficient in producing heat and yet still chugs out nasty fumes. It is cheaper than the (relatively) cleaner coal that Kazakhstan produces, though.
Other contributors to the filthy air include the vast, nightmarish landfill on the edge of Bishkek that is perennially burning and emitting smoke. The growing number of cars clogging the city’s streets are old and bereft of decent exhausts.
Tall buildings have sprung up like mushrooms, preventing the wind from performing its cleansing ventilatory function. Countless trees have been chopped down to make way for the construction of tower blocks and roads to accommodate those polluting automobiles.
Anybody spending the whole day outside, invariably returns home with clothes stinking of dirty coal.
The smog hangs so thick and heavy that the sun’s rays struggle to penetrate. This leads in turn to further lowering the temperature on the streets. At the request of concerned members of the public, police officers shepherd the homeless into shelters to prevent them from freezing to death.
Some experts have tried to measure exactly what impact this is having on the health of Bishkek residents. A study released by UNICEF’s Kyrgyzstan office late last year concluded that at least 112 deaths were provoked by exposure to polluted air between July 2021 and June 2022.
“The estimated welfare cost from air pollution in Bishkek in 2021-2022 is 2 billion soms ($24.9 million),” UNICEF found.
The Health Ministry was bullish in its response to this claim.
Deputy Health Minister Bubuzhan Arykbayeva said in early December that the available scientific data did not definitively demonstrate that 112 people died as a direct consequence of air pollution.
“We have sent a request to find out on what basis this figure was calculated. We are waiting for a response. UNICEF has sent a request [for clarification] to the researchers,” Arykbayeva said.
But UNICEF is far from alone at reaching similarly downbeat conclusions.
A team of researchers noted in an article published in 2022 in the medical journal Public Health Challenges that “between 2015 and 2019, the respiratory diseases incidence among Bishkek residents increased by 30.6 percent.”
“In this period, the incidence of newly registered bronchial asthma almost doubled from 24 to 47 per 100,000, and lung cancer increased from 53 to 74 per 100,000,” the researchers found. “At that time, the officials reported a threefold increase in respiratory diseases among children under the age of 14, compared to that of adults or adolescents.”
Smog is, among other things, a class issue. The whole problem hits the top of the public agenda when residents of central Bishkek start experiencing discomfort.
But when the dirty air lifts in the downtown, it doesn’t disappear altogether. It lingers in the lowlands, where some of the poorest inhabitants of the city live.
Those people do not have the luxury of worrying too much about smog. Their main thought is where and how to get their hands on some cheap coal so as to keep from freezing. This winter has been especially harsh, making that an urgent priority.
Officials have belatedly begun to take the problem a little more seriously.
On January 20, the head of the Cabinet, Akylbek Japarov, addressed a meeting of local government officials and issued a few band-aid instructions that he hopes will provide relief.
One popular theory is that a chief driver of the smog is the ramshackle and often illegally built suburban settlements that have appeared around Bishkek since the 1990s. Households in those areas, known as novostroiki, or new-builds, burn low-grade coal and, at times, even household trash to keep themselves warm. Japarov ordered that the settlements switch, wherever possible, to gas heating over the coming two years.
All that remains is for those communities to be connected to the gas grid – Japarov says it will happen this year.
Japarov also instructed the city hall to study the possibility of imposing a ban on trucks entering the city during daytime and called for the construction of bypass roads.
And Japarov wants to see more motorists parking their cars at the city limits and taking the bus into town. The fleet of 120 gas-powered buses that Kyrgyzstan recently acquired from China will be key to making that a viable option.
Danil Usmanov is a photo and video journalist based in Bishkek.