As winter begins in Central Asia, Kabul, Afghanistan and cities across the region have been subjected to hazardous air quality, as recorded by IQAir.

Listing of major cities around the world ranked by their AQI

Pictured: Listing of major cities around the world ranked by their AQIs on Friday, 23 November. The cities were ranked at 7AM PST.

Geography, poverty, and winter fuel choices are combining to create deadly air pollution conditions in Central Asia. The challenge is starkest in war-torn Kabul, where air pollution may have killed over 26,000 Afghans in 2017.1 By comparison, the nearly two-decade long Afghan war killed 3,483 civilians that same year. 

Kabul, along with Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, both registered very unhealthy to hazardous air pollution levels on Friday, 20 November and frequently topped the live city ranking of worst air quality among major cities on Friday; Monday, 23 November; and Tuesday, 24 November.

An air monitor in Kabul, Afghanistan

Pictured: An air monitor in Kabul, Afghanistan recorded hazardous air quality spikes in the evening hours of Thursday, 19 November and Friday, 20 November.

That same Friday, air quality in several neighboring Central Asian cities ranged from unhealthy for sensitive groups to hazardous. Two Kazakh cities near Bishkek, Karatau and Alamaty, also had air quality that was unhealthy for sensitive groups on that day.

On Friday, 20 November, two separate air monitors in Kabul measured hazardous air quality listings of 301 and 451, while a third reached a very unhealthy 261 measurement around 11:30 PM local time. 

Air quality in Kabul, Afghanistan recorded on 20 November

Pictured: Air quality in Kabul, Afghanistan recorded on 20 November, 11:30 PM local time. Source: IQAir Map

AQI ratings between 201 and 300 are very unhealthy. Any rating over 300 is considered hazardous.

The air quality index (AQI) is used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help the public quickly understand the health risks of registered air quality. Levels of air pollution may have a stronger impact on air pollution sensitive demographics. 

U.S. AQI levels, PM2.5 levels, and health recommendations

Pictured: U.S. AQI levels, PM2.5 levels, and health recommendations if a person is exposed to these levels of pollution for 24 hours.

Unhealthy air quality in several cities across Central Asia

Pictured: Unhealthy air quality in several cities across Central Asia recorded on Friday, 20 November. 

Among the primary pollutants contributing to the poor air quality is PM2.5.2 PM2.5, sometimes referred to as fine particulate matter, is measured at less than 2.5 microns. Particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers are so small that they can stay in the lungs and enter the circulatory system. 

PM2.5 can cause significant health complications, such as:3 

  • irritation of the throat and airways
  • coughing
  • difficulty breathing
  • heart and lung disease
  • nonfatal heart attacks
  • irregular heartbeat
  • asthma flareups
  • decreased lung function
  • early death

What’s causing poor air quality in Kabul, Afghanistan?

Like its Central Asian neighbors, Kabul struggles with multiple sources of poor air quality. Sources of poor air quality and PM2.5 air pollution in Kabul include:4

  • old cars
  • unpaved roads
  • poor fuel quality
  • industrial brick kilns
  • small scale smelting plants and foundries
  • bakeries
  • restaurants
  • power plants
  • generators
  • household cooking stoves and heaters
  • trash burning

The current war in Afghanistan (2001 to present-day) has put added pressure on Kabul. 75 percent of the city’s estimated 5 million people are informal resident migrants from rural areas or former refugees who’ve returned.5

Residents turn to burning trash or low-grade black market fuel to keep warm, as cleaner sources of heat remain unaffordable.6

Afghanistan struggles with air pollution annually

Afghanistan was the fourth most polluted country in 2019, averaging 58.80 µg/m³, or micrograms per cubic meter, in PM2.5 emissions for the year. The country was ranked behind Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Mongolia.  

Average PM2.5 concentration of 58.80 µg/m³ of PM2.5 pollutants is considered unhealthy. Though Afghanistan’s PM2.5 air pollution is down from 61.80 µg/m³ in 2018, the country’s air pollution concentration was still five times above WHO exposure recommendations in 2019.

Despite the very poor air quality ranking among countries, Kabul only ranked 70th worst for air quality among global cities with data availability in 2019. The better comparable ranking may be because Kabul enjoyed excellent to good air quality in May and June, but experienced unhealthy air in January, February, and November. The average air quality was very unhealthy in December 2019, averaging 196 µg/m³.

What causes poor air quality in Central Asia?

Geographically, Afghanistan falls within the boundary of what some organizations, including Afghanistan itself, define as both Central and South Asia.7,8 

The landlocked nation is dominated by mountain ranges, including the Hindu Kush. Kabul is in a valley between spurs of the mountain range. The valley Kabul lies within forms a bowl that experiences atmospheric inversions during the fall and winter. Atmospheric inversions trap cold, polluted air below a layer of warmer air, preventing the pollutants from dispersing into the atmosphere.

The mountainous regions of Central Asia can experience brutally cold winters. Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and Alamaty, Kazakhstan, both located in bowl-shaped topography, suffer from the same temperature inversions plaguing Kabul.9 In those cities, heating smoke from millions of coal burning stoves, Soviet-era coal-fired power stations, and vehicle use creates smog that gets trapped in the layer of cold blanketing those cities. 

What can be done about air pollution in Kabul? 

Afghan officials are taking steps in concert with international aid organizations to try to improve the air quality in Kabul.

Because there hasn’t been a census in the city since 1979, officials must rely on estimates to create a new master plan for the city, with hopes of better controlling traffic congestion. Authorities have been helped in their estimates by United Nation satellite imagery population estimates. 

UN-Habitat has also worked with Afghanistan to distribute land occupancy certificates for informal residents in Kabul and other Afghani cities.10 The certificates allow the government to count and tax citizens. Public funding allows the city to build infrastructure that can alleviate poor air quality by creating new green spaces and paving roads. Informal residents also benefit by having formal assurance that they won’t be evicted. 

The government has previously taken steps to cut pollution from local businesses sources.11 In 2019, wedding halls and property management offices were shut down for heating-related pollution.