There are days when Gulnoza Shomakhmudova, a 57-year-old asthmatic, misses the days of COVID-19, because at least the air in Uzbekistan’s capital was a little cleaner back then.
“I suffer from the air pollution very intensely. My health has worsened, and breathing has become difficult. I have developed strong allergies,” Shomakhmudova, a former health worker who lives in Tashkent’s industrial Yangikhayot district, told Eurasianet. “During the pandemic, it was better. I even contracted COVID, but I didn't experience any asthma attacks.”
To avoid peak dirty air, Shomakhmudova limits her outdoor activities. She goes for walks as early as 4 a.m., before the city coughs itself awake.
“After that, I can't go outside anymore because it’s dusty and dirty. I always have to hang wet gauze netting on the window. We don’t open the window at all during the day.”
The data shows that Shomakhmudova is far from alone in experiencing this distress.
In recent weeks, Tashkent has repeatedly been ranked among the 10 most polluted cities globally. With winter now in full swing, more heating fuel is being burned, producing more of the foul air blanketing the city and putting a population of 3 million at risk.
According to the air quality index, or AQI, run by IQAir, a Swiss technology company that tracks air quality around the world, Tashkent in December witnessed at least two days of “very unhealthy” and six days of “unhealthy” pollution. Only on two days was the air deemed to be of “good” quality.
On December 14 and 22, the AQI in Tashkent for PM2.5 – a hazardous air pollutant known as particulate matter 2.5 — stood at 273 and 284, respectively, far exceeding limits set by the World Health Organization, or WHO.
This problem is the inevitable side effect of the rapid urban sprawl now gripping Tashkent. Getting specific about driving factors is complicated, though.
Citizens and lobbies will variously disagree on the extent of damage caused by industrial pollution, aggravated by fossil fuel-fired power plants, transport emissions, the loss of green spaces, the uncontrolled construction boom or even seasonal factors, such as residential heating.
But it is clear there is one major culprit. According to the ecology ministry, the use of hydrocarbons, including coal, has increased substantially over a four-year period due to “the growing demand of economic sectors and the population for energy resources”.
The country’s coal consumption has grown from 3.9 million tons in 2019 to 6.7 million tons in 2023. This has happened not least because of last year’s presidential order to switch greenhouses, cement and brick factories, kindergartens, schools and hospitals to coal fuel in an attempt to save on natural gas.
Recent research shows coal emissions that contain sulfur dioxide are associated with a higher mortality risk than exposure to PM2.5 from other sources. The air in Tashkent is more polluted with carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide than any other city in Uzbekistan, according to daily data provided by Uzgidromet, the state meteorological service.
Toxic emissions from cars are also a part of the problem, the ecology ministry says. Car sales in the city are increasing. According to government statistics, Tashkent has 193 cars per 1,000 people, which is more than double the national average. In 2019, vehicle pollutants accounted for 90 percent of emissions in the city.
To make matters worse, Tashkent has lost swathes of green space. Despite a presidential moratorium, vast numbers of trees keep being felled. Since 2019, when the moratorium was first imposed, about 49,000 trees have been chopped down. Most of them are destroyed by real estate developers undaunted by paltry fines.
Until recently, the government has barely acknowledged a problem exists. There is still no national standard for PM2.5 or a specific policy document on air protection.
The public is getting more vocal, however.
“Air pollution is considered a very hot topic at the moment, because we feel this problem, we see it,” says Mutabar Khushvaktova, an environmental activist and citizen journalist who writes under the pen name Urikguli. “The smog over Tashkent has not dissipated for almost a year.”
“This is because trees are being cut down despite the ban, there are a lot of cars, and a lot of construction work,” Khushvaktova said. “People see this, but not everyone understands how dangerous it is, because there is no information out there in the Uzbek language.”
Amid all this gloom, there are some shoots of positive action.
At the end of 2022, the government recognized the need to transition to a green economy to help meet growing power demand. A strategic green-growth roadmap approved by the president set an ambitious target for Uzbekistan to generate up to 30 percent of its energy needs via renewable energy sources, or RES, by 2030. Currently, about 10-12 percent of the country’s total electricity is generated from RES.
Media coverage and public pressure have finally compelled Tashkent city officials to take action on some matters. Municipal authorities in mid-January announced that they had solicited the services of international experts to develop measures on improving environmental wellbeing in the city.
“To improve the environmental situation and to protect public health, we will need to adopt some tough decisions. To ensure these decisions do not lead to negative consequences in the future, they must be based on research and analysis,” city hall said in a statement.
Quite what that all means will be made clear in a public presentation that officials say is coming “soon.”
Gloomier observers still worry decision-makers will prioritize short-term solutions. Earlier this month, a group of activists, bloggers and musicians mounted a demonstration to draw public and governmental attention to the consequences of air pollution, and emphasized that the issue had to be addressed in a systematic fashion.
“It is necessary to develop a whole range of measures and take proper decisions. I want the situation to change for the better. This is what the whole of Uzbekistan is waiting for,” Umid Gafurov, author of the popular Telegram channel Troll.uz, told news outlet Gazeta.uz.
Citizens, meanwhile, must take their own remedial action.
With her mind on a major construction project near her home, Shomakhmudova is now contemplating buying an air purifier. That is an expensive proposition for her.
“A very large construction project started near my house. They are building nine residential blocks. Now I'm sitting here and thinking that in the summer, I probably won't be able to breathe at all,” she said.