Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic, is a landlocked country in Central Asia. It is bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, and its capital city is Bishkek. The population in 2020 was estimated to be just over 6.5 million people. For many years it was part of the Russian Empire and only became an independent state in 1991 after Mikhail Gorbachev's democratic reforms in the USSR.
At the end of 2020, the capital city of Bishkek was the dirtiest city in the entire world with a US AQI figure of 352. Kyrgyzstan as a country was placed at number 16 in the world table of the cities with the worst air quality.
In 2019 the US AQI figure was 95 and the PM2.5 figure was three times higher than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines.
Due to the increase in energy production, industrial growth and urban development, further efforts are needed to reduce air pollution.
Sensors have been installed by the US Embassy and any data collected is made available for public knowledge. As this information is available to anybody in the world, members of the tourist board were obviously concerned as they understood that figures as high as those would certainly deter people from coming to their country.
It was also pointed out that the local authorities have a duty to protect their citizens and should therefore inform them when levels of air pollution entered a dangerous phase. Advice should be offered as to how best to protect yourself and your family under such conditions.
The State Agency for Environment Protection and Forestry was recently contacted and asked several pertinent questions but as yet, no reply has been received.
In 2019, for the second year running, panic about the quality of the forthcoming winter air quality in the Kyrgyz capital is eclipsing dismay over corruption as a unifying theme on social media.
A common way to judge the quality of air is by measuring the quantity of PM2.5 particles suspended in the air. The Swiss company IQAir.com defines a reading of 101-150 PM 2.5 as “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and more than 200 as “very unhealthy.” These figures are measured in microns per cubic metre (µg/m³).
More and more residents are increasingly aware of the quality of air in their local environment and more importantly in their own apartments and homes. The sales of air purifiers are increasing as more people become very concerned about the high levels of pollutants there are in the air. It is common knowledge that the air quality in Bishkek is poor, even in the warmer summer months, but access to real-time data reinforces the fact that it is not getting any better. Reading supplied by the US Embassy, which is in a considerably “clean” part of town attest to that.
During the last three days in November 2019, readings for PM2.5 averaged 234. On days such as these, it is quite commonplace for the quality to increase dramatically during the early evening where it can rise to over 300. This figure places it into the “Hazardous” category. The advice is to avoid all outdoor activity.
The reason why Bishkek’s air quality deteriorates so quickly is the onset of winter and with it the cold weather. Winter weather means it’s the heater season when stoves in private homes and industrial furnaces work at maximum capacity to combat the icy blasts from Siberia.
Traffic on the icy roads slow down to a crawl and add to the already polluted atmosphere with their idling engines. They do not turn them off as they wait in a queue as that turns the heater off too.
Random construction does not help the situation as newly built high-rise apartments block off the ventilation corridors where the wind used to blow and clean the air. This assists the heavy frost in trapping the fog between the lower, colder layers. A phenomenon is known as a temperature inversion.
In 2016, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) organised a round table discussion to present and then discuss the results of the analysis on air quality management. Representatives of the State Agency on Environmental Protection and Forestry were invited to attend as were several government ministers and representatives from local companies.
Further to the round table discussion, UNECE organised a workshop to support Kyrgyzstan in improving its air pollutant emission inventories in accordance with the Convention’s requirements. The workshop focused on the practical work with the country’s national data in relation to its priority activity sectors.
The United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), returned to Bishkek in January 2019 to present a “Health and Pollution Action Plan” for approval by the Kyrgyz government. This action plan was developed as part of an ongoing process and was funded in part by the European Union (EU). Their financial support equates to over 5 million Euros over the past three years. Their main objective is to help governments of low to middle-income countries to take action against pollution and the effects that it can have on public health.
Bishkek’s Town Hall has been blamed for making matters worse by widening roads and creating a lot of dust in the process. Another factor connected to this is the fact that in order to widen the roads, many of the trees growing by the roadside had to be cut down to make way for the new carriageways. Due to the availability and popularity of social media, the town hall is very much aware of the dissatisfaction the residents feel about them. They are currently out of favour by allowing the Russian energy giant, Gazprom to lay new pipelines and take up a settlement area whilst they make progress. Thousands of transient workers build temporary accommodation and burn whatever organic material they can without a thought for the consequences. This can be wet wood or low-quality coal. Possibly two of the worst causes of pollution imaginable.
Hundreds of gas-powered buses have been promised, but as yet, they are still only promises. The local authorities claim to be planting a lot more trees than its predecessor even as it continues to cut down trees in the road-widening scheme.
A couple of local residents have commented on social media about the air purifiers they have bought. On man, who bought 2 units for his home complained that they reduced the pollution level from 500 down to 100 but they were unable to reduce it anymore. He said that he lived in a particularly bad part of the city where figures were often recorded as “Hazardous”.
The other comment was from a man who said that he had experienced the best nights’ sleep since he could remember but when he needed to leave his apartment, the smell of smoke was so strong that he could not face going outside into it.
One owner of a Thai restaurant in the city advertises the fact that he has an air purifier in an attempt to attract more customers.
The World Health Organisation's guidelines (WHO), states that the air quality in Kyrgyzstan is considered moderately unsafe for most of the year. The most up-to-date figures indicate the country's annual mean concentration of PM2.5 is 23 µg/m3, which exceeds the recommended maximum of 10 µg/m3.
The main contributors to the polluted air include the thermal power plants, the construction industry, mining, food processing factories and emissions from road vehicles.
Outdoor air pollution is a mixture of chemicals, PM2.5 and PM10 particulate matter, and biological materials that react with each other in the sunlight to form tiny hazardous particles. It contributes to breathing problems, chronic diseases, increased hospitalization, and premature mortality.
The most dangerous of all pollutants are the microscopic particles that measure less than 2.5 microns in diameter. Because of their size, they easily bypass the body’s defence mechanism and enter the lungs. Here they become trapped at the base of the bronchial tubes, in the alveoli. There are approximately 480 million of these tiny sacs in an adult human body.
There are three main functions performed by the alveoli. They move air in and out of the lungs in a process known as ventilation. They exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide in the blood which is called diffusion. Lastly, they assist the blood to pump through the lungs which is known as perfusion. If these tine sacs become contaminated with PM2.5 particles, they too will be passed into the bloodstream and travel around the body.
The general advice is to limit your exposure to poor quality air. Consider investing in an air purifier for your home and/or car and wear a quality mask if venturing outdoors when the air quality is poor. The IQAir website can always help you by informing you what the latest air quality is. On days when it is at unhealthy levels try to rearrange your schedule so you don’t have to spend too much time outdoors.
Lebedinovka is situated in the suburbs of the capital, Bishkek and is currently showing a recorded level of pollution at a staggering 530 US AQI. This certainly categorises it as “Hazardous”. This is possibly due to the light wind speed of only 3.6 kms/h and the low temperature of -7C. The concentration of PM2.5 was recorded as being 1550.7 µg/m³ at 23.00 hours today. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended level is less than 10 µg/m³, showing just how polluted this country is!
Other regions though are not as polluted as here Chuy Province records a level of US AQI 46, Issyk-Kul Region records a US AQI of 49 and Osh Region records a US AQI of 45.
At a hazardous level such as this, the advice is to stay indoors and close doors and windows to prevent the entry of dirty air. If outdoor travel is unavoidable, then wear a good quality mask and limit the time spent outside.
Kyrgyzstan has many environmental problems which include ozone layer depletion, global climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification.
It is estimated that the energy sector in Kyrgyzstan is responsible for almost 70 per cent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. And with the increasing demand for energy, this figure is likely to grow, even though hydropower is producing more and more power on an annual basis. Also related to Global climate change is the loss of the country’s glaciers. The total area taken up by the glaciers is 20 per cent less than it was in recent years, and the fear is that unless something is done to address the fact, it is thought they will disappear completely by 2100.
The country first acknowledged that it had a problem with desertification in 1999 and realised what a threat it was to the rural areas. In studies conducted between 2009 and 2011, it was found that over 88 per cent of the 10.6 million hectares of agricultural land were found to be degraded. Soil re-salinization has increased in recent years and is affecting around 75 per cent of all arable land. Fifty per cent of ancient pasture land is now classified as suffering from degradation of both soil and vegetation.
Air pollution has increased throughout the country due to an ever-increasing demand for power. The energy and construction sectors were found to be most responsible for the poor quality air, followed by the mining and processing industries, households that use inferior quality coal and vehicles. Many such vehicles are old and poorly maintained.
The energy producers are encouraged to use cleaner natural gas as their energy source, but coal seems to remain their fuel of choice.
Industrial waste is becoming an increasing problem. There are currently 92 mining sites that contain approximately 250 million cubic metres of both toxic and radioactive waste, and in the first 10 years of the twenty-first century, this figure increased from 190 hectares to 381.