Georgia is a country in the Caucasus region, at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It shares land borders with four other countries and has a Black Sea coastline. In 2020, its estimated population was 3.7 million people.
At the beginning of 2021, Georgia was experiencing a period of “Moderate” quality air with a US AQI reading of 68. This is according to classifications laid down by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Even though the figures do not look too large, it was enough to rank Georgia in 47th place in the dirty city league.
Polluted air is the main and often invisible killer associated with every ninth death in the world including 36 per cent of lung cancer mortality; 34 per cent from stroke; 27 per cent from heart disease, and 35 per cent from chronic lung diseases.
According to the World Health Organisation, Tbilisi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Pollution in Tbilisi is 2.9 times higher than the norm. Air pollution in Georgia as a whole is associated with an average of 3,741 deaths per year.
For comparison: in Washington (USA) pollution is 10 per cent below the norm; In Madrid (Spain) is equal to the norm; In Riga (Latvia) exceeds the norm by 70 per cent; In Brussels (Belgium) it is 80 per cent higher than the norm.
The fact that it exceeds the norm by almost 300 per cent in Tbilisi does not mean that the situation is the same throughout Georgia. In Abastumani, for example, the margin alone is 50 per cent off and approximately equal to Bonn (Germany).
According to the report, the main cause of air pollution in Tbilisi is from vehicle emissions.
As with most large cities with big populations, the main source of air pollution comes from vehicles. The larger the city; the larger amount of vehicles are owned by its residents. Add to this, the emissions from industry and power stations powered by fossil fuels. In less developed countries these vehicles tend to be older, and therefore not as efficient as newer models fitted with the latest technology.
Surrounded by diesel-choked streets, a green oasis in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, won a last-minute reprieve last year. After a five year battle between locals and an investor who wanted to build a hotel on Vake Park, one of the city's last remaining patches of nature, bulldozers were finally banned.
It was only a small victory in the fight against air pollution, said an environmental activist with Tbilisi Guerrilla Gardening Group who camped in Vake Park to protest at the hotel being built. The group is one of several pushing to improve air quality in a city plagued by old cars, dirty construction projects and a lack of green open spaces.
Georgia is not alone in its struggle against air pollution, but it is one of the countries worst affected. According to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), only North Korea had a higher mortality rate from filthy air in 2017.
That year, about one death for every thousand Georgians was attributable to air pollution, making it one of the country's biggest killers. Along with its neighbours across the Black Sea, the former Soviet state is one of the dozens of countries belatedly waking up to the deadly effects of polluted air.
A landmark UN report says air pollution now kills more people than smoking and is "the main environmental contributor to the global burden of disease."
The sombre announcement follows a study conducted by the University of Mainz, published the day before, that corroborated a separate estimate of the global mortality rate from air pollution. Both reports put the death toll at close to nine million people a year.
Air pollution is not a cause of death but a risk factor, says an expert at the World Health Organisation, adding that what kills people are the diseases it can lead to, such as lung cancer and strokes.
South and East Asia are often seen as the hardest hit. A report found that 50 of the most polluted cities in 2018 were all in Asia, with 22 of the 30 worst-affected in India. The report, which was based on local measurements of fine particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), covered 3000 cities. But pollution in many countries was not counted.
In Tbilisi, where rush-hour roads are clogged with old cars emitting dark-coloured fumes, the causes are immediately visible. Most cars in the capital were built before 1999 and therefore were not fitted with the latest filtration technology. A 2016 study from the Technical University of Georgia found the amount of green space per citizen in Tbilisi is just a fraction of European standards.
Studies show that there is a direct link between air pollution and a child's cognitive development. This applies to neurological, psychological and behavioural problems, the child's memory, learning success, verbal and nonverbal IQ.
Air is also harmful during pregnancy and adversely affects the mental development of the foetus, according to a report by the United Nations Children's Fund. In a study published by Imperial College London, scientists claim that air pollution in the city during pregnancy is also associated with low (under 2.5 kg) weight in new-borns.
The infant's brain is particularly sensitive to toxic substances in polluted air, and it can be damaged, unlike an adult, by very low doses of toxins. Added to this is the risk factor that a newborn's breathing rhythm is much faster than that of an adult, and their physical and immune systems are not yet formed. UNICEF says that "protecting children from polluted environments is essential not only for the benefit of children but also for the benefit of society, as a clean environment means reduced health care costs, increased work capacity and a safer, cleaner environment for all.
UNICEF calls on parents to create the safest possible environment for infants under one year of age. Toxins should be minimised both outdoors, in the air, and indoors, where there is a high risk of inhaling toxins from tobacco emissions, kitchen stove use, or organic fuel-fired heaters. Children should avoid going out and travelling during peak hours. If necessary, then they should wear a good quality mask which covers the nose and mouth.
Local government should ensure that kindergartens, schools, outpatient facilities, and hospitals are located away from major air pollutants during urban planning. Places to avoid include highways, factories, and farms that are treated with pesticides and irrigated with contaminated irrigation water. In addition, air pollution can be avoided by switching to clean, renewable energy sources and their replacement. By stimulating investment in replacement and increasing access to public transport as well as increasing the area of green space, if properly managed waste, using effective methods of recycling can all help make the air cleaner, says a UNICEF study.
The latest figures confirm that there are even more people diagnosed with cancer than ever before. According to the latest data on disease control, 10,506 tumours of all localisations have been diagnosed in Georgia. Doctors believe that air pollution is one of the most important factors in the deterioration of human health, which, among other diseases, is associated with cancer and respiratory diseases.
In June 2016, the World Health Organisation published a study stating that the rate of PM10 per cubic meter of air in Tbilisi was 55, which was 3 times higher than the permissible level (PM10 indicates the presence of particles with a diameter of 10 micrometres in the air). Also, the rate of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air in Tbilisi was 29, which is twice as high as the allowable norm (PM2.5 implies the presence of particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres in the air and such particles are released into the atmosphere as a result of fuel combustion).
Last year, Georgia introduced mandatory inspection of cars, said a local official "Until last year, you could have a car in very poor shape that pollutes the air, but not get fined for it." To reduce the global burden of air pollution on public health, experts recommend urgently switching away from burning fossil fuels, and improving the quality of monitoring equipment.
Georgia will introduce a modern air quality monitoring system based on indicator measurement standards of EU member states. Through the new automated monitoring network, it will be possible to improve air quality and eliminate health and environmental threats related to air pollution. The new monitoring system is already in place in four cities which are Tbilisi, Rustavi, Batumi and Kutaisi, in twenty-five municipalities of the country. The collection and analysis of air samples is carried out once every three months.
With the assistance of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the National Environment Agency has been able to strengthen its modern monitoring system, which addresses Georgia's commitments under the EU Association Agenda. The UNDP was supported by a Swedish-funded initiative with a budget of $150,000.
Restrictions on preventing the spread of COVID-19, which included a ban on public transport, movement and other restrictions, has affected air quality in Georgia. A spokesman for the Atmospheric Air Division of the National Environment Agency told Netgazeti that nitrogen dioxide (NO2), one of the main air pollutants in the country, has been at its best for almost a month and continues to decline. This is when a similar rate is generally observed for only a few days during the year. It was noted that nitrogen dioxide is emitted mainly as a result of road transport emissions, and since the World Health Organisation declared a new pandemic, a decline in its concentration in Georgia since 11th March is evident.
There are 8 automatic monitoring stations in big cities across the country. Every station recorded a downward trend in the concentration of this pollutant, reducing this harmful substance in the air. This is best seen at roadside stations that are installed along busy highways. Its concentration is at the lowest rate. This has been happening since mid-March and maintains a very good rate. "Unfortunately, we rarely had [this data] before, but now it has arrived, which on the one hand makes us very happy, but it is unfortunate that this was caused by this difficult situation that is happening all over the world.
Apart from automatic stations, nitrogen dioxide is measured by indicator measurements. This is also a European method. For example, on Rustaveli in all four seasons, the level showed a 'red colour', which means that it is a very serious problem in terms of air pollution, and this figure dropped from red to 'very good', or the blue colour, which is another clear example that transport is the main source of pollution.
According to the head of the Atmospheric Air Division, the pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of encouraging more environmentally friendly transport in the future.
As for other pollutants, the concentration of particulate matter in the air of PM10 and PM2.5, the spokesperson said that in this regard, vehicles have not been the main source of pollution, although some improvement is still observed. It has always been said that the main source of PM pollutants is not from transport, of course, transport also contributes, but mainly it is the construction sector in the largest cities, industrial emissions in cities and settlements with large industrial zones, such as Rustavi, and also the firewood consumption.
Also, a very serious source is the open ground and desert dust inside the country, which very often enters Georgia from different directions, it is the Sahara Desert dust, as well as the dust of the Arabian Peninsula and the deserts of Central Asia. We also have a small positive trend in terms of solid particles, but not as obvious as in the case of nitrogen dioxide.