The coldest winter in a generation, high fuel prices, and poor city planning have created a trifecta whereby Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, is choking on air pollution.
The city has had the unwelcome accolade of appearing close to the top of the list for poor air quality in the World Air Quality ranking for the past three years, being rated either “very unhealthy” or “hazardous”.
Air pollution in residential neighbourhoods on the outskirts has been decreed a public health emergency.
The issue has been highlighted in a ground-breaking photo exhibition, supported by the International Organization for Migration. It features new and gripping works by Shailo Dzhekshenbaev, one of the most renowned contemporary photographers in Kyrgyzstan, whose work has achieved recognition worldwide.
Entitled “Tutun”, the Kyrgyz word for smoke, the exhibition aims to increase awareness and draw public attention to such acute social issues as air pollution in the capital city, undeveloped infrastructure in these neighbourhoods, and social inclusion.
And how does it relate to migration?
Since the early 1990s, many internal migrants from various regions of the country have been moving to Bishkek in search of better living conditions. As living in the city proper is not affordable for them, many of these people built their houses on the outskirts, where they are still inadequately connected to the city’s public infrastructure.
“Due to growing internal migration in Kyrgyzstan and the arrival of working-age individuals in the capital city, Bishkek, population density in these areas is high and population continues to grow”, says IOM’s head of office in Bishkek, Bermet Moldobaeva. “As a result, neighbourhood air pollution will continue to be a public health concern for years to come, necessitating the urgent need for comprehensive action.”
Year on year, air quality has worsened in Bishkek. One of the main factors contributing to air pollution is the use of coal for heating by many local residents during autumn and winter. Other factors include the lack of garbage bins and green spaces, irregular waste collection by local administrations, dust from unpaved roads, poor air circulation and high population density.
In addition, Bishkek is located in a mountain valley where air pollutants often tend to get trapped in certain areas due to the air current patterns and the nature of the terrain itself, especially during the winter. The ongoing construction of tall buildings across the city does not always consider the city’s general plan (layout, topography and infrastructure) and wind circulation. Bishkek’s sanitary landfill, where waste burns all year long, also exacerbates air pollution.
“Our air quality is so bad that when we hang laundry, it turns black, so we hang our laundry inside the house”, said one pensioner living in a badly-affected district. “I go out of the house in the morning and look at the pipes from the residents’ stoves, and in some of them, the gases that come out of the pipes are black, some are blue – which indicates that all the residents are heating with different fuels.
“When I was young, I used to use poor quality coal. Now I always buy better quality fuel because I think about the health of my community. I try to plant seedlings and plants in my plot and make the area greener.”
Air quality is also influenced by location, with some areas situated near the thermal power plant, the sanitary landfill, or one of the city’s many factories. Residents living in these neighbourhoods face additional challenges, such as inadequate public services, including a lack of gas infrastructure and sewerage. However, most do not want to move elsewhere and, in fact, are interested in improving in the houses they currently occupy.
“The main problem of air pollution in Bishkek is revealed in the autumn-winter period”, says Nurzat Abdyrasulova, of Unison Group, IOM’s partner in an environmental project, which includes the photo exhibition.
“With IOM we are trying to inform the public what we can do to reduce air pollution in Bishkek. We worked in many residentials neighbourhoods around the city, because very often internal migrants living in residential neighbourhoods are mentioned as the causes of pollution. We are trying to inform that all residents are involved in the air pollution, not only migrants. In addition, we inform residents about modern methods of heat preservation and ecological construction of houses.”
This issue has also been raised internationally by Kyrgyz citizens living abroad. Armeerim Turslaieva is president of the Swiss-Kyrgyz diaspora, and co-founder of Tazar, an app that plots all the waste collection sites in Kyrgyzstan’s main cities, and shows people how to recycle, using information on labels.
“I care about the air we breathe”, she says. “Each resident of Bishkek now produces 500-600 kilogrammes of waste per year. This doesn’t evaporate; it doesn’t go to Mars! It stays in our landfill. When we burn the waste in the landfill, we eventually breath it in the air in Bishkek.
“The main goal of Tazar is to fight the waste problem in Kyrgyzstan, so that the least possible waste goes into the landfill.”