during the heating season (from November to March inclusive), there were multiple exceedances of the maximum permissible concentrations (MPCs) of fine particles in Bishkek; in single-family home areas, MPCs were exceeded by a factor of 9 to 13
Bishkek ranked 16th most polluted city according to a report by AirVisual
from November 1, 2019 to April 4, 2020
over the last heating period, Bishkek residents for 102 days out of 150 breathed air with an increased level of pollution (1-5 MPCs)
the capital of Kyrgyzstan often appeared in the top-three World Air Quality rating for air pollution. Cities with more PM2.5 particles than in Bishkek were Delhi, India and Lahore, Pakistan.
Single-family homes can't help it
The capital of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, once a garden city, today has become a particularly polluted area. In recent years, it has been increasingly more difficult to breathe in Bishkek, and the number of respiratory diseases has been growing.
Air pollution is especially affecting the northeastern districts of the city, which are farther from the mountains and closer to the city's power plant and mainly consist of single-family homes.
Chinara Yuldasheva is 40 years old. She works in pharmacology and runs a small business with partners from India. Chinara's house is close to a central road in a single-family home area. There are many service stations and private bathhouses around, so gas pollution is very high. The woman admits that she would like to move somewhere closer to the mountains, but all her family lives here, and her business is here, and her child has got used to the school nearby. For now, she cannot move anywhere.
In winter, we all burn fuels. I have already bought coal, 100 bags, and firewood, too. This will be enough until February, then I'll have to buy another 40-50 bags. The neighbors do the same. Sometimes you go outside at night, and there's so much smoke, it's even scary, do we really breathe this?! There's no other way. Electricity cannot heat the house. Everyone will be cold, and children will get sick. But if you use the stove, the house is warm. And that's how things are all around this neighborhood,"
– Chinara explains.
Chinara explains how the heating system works in her home
Overall, the family goes through five tons of coal in one season. But even this, according to the woman, is not enough for a house of 180 square meters. The Yuldashev family's income is 30-35 thousand soms (about 400 US dollars) per month. The family cannot afford to switch to gas heating.
A gas boiler costs 70 thousand soms (about 875 US dollars). The monthly costs of gas for such a house that has no insulation is about 30 thousand soms (about 375 US dollars).
The Yuldashevs tried to heat the house with electricity; the average monthly bill was 12 thousand soms (150 US dollars). Sometimes, the amount was as high as 17 thousand soms (213 US dollars).
According to Chinara, even if their family found a way to heat the house in a more environmentally friendly fashion, their neighbors probably wouldn't follow their example.
Our neighbors started a business two years ago; in winter, every day, they would start fires in a stove to heat their bathhouse for their customers. It's very hot in our house upstairs because there's metal, the roof tiles get very hot, so we have to open the windows. And outside, there's the fire smoke. It is hard for everyone to breathe, but it's especially bad for my son. Only the inhaler helps him; without it, he's suffocating,"
– Chinara explains.
Chinara is sure that her son's poor health, especially in winter, is due to air pollution, and if it weren't for this, her son would be healthy. She thinks that her child became ill in his early childhood, when she worked in a café that was heated with a stove, too.
Chinara's son Shif dreams of becoming an engineer
The woman does not know how to fix the air pollution situation in Bishkek. She says that people do not have the means to do it on their own, and the government is inactive. She adds that paying fines is much cheaper for many house owners than using alternative heating sources.
Chinara thinks that air quality also affects the way people cope with COVID-19.
Everyone in our family had the virus. For my mom, it was very hard: she is 70 years old, 40% lung damage. Double pneumonia. My husband was ill; he had single pneumonia. My sister, her husband, my younger brother—it was severe for all of us,
- Chinara recalls.
How air pollution affects the spread and progression of COVID-19
Pulmonologist and professor Talantbek Sooronbaev considers polluted air a favorable factor for the spread of COVID-19.
"Particulate matter is a carrier of the coronavirus infection. Polluted air itself causes systemic heart disease, respiratory diseases, complications in pregnant women. The higher the level of air pollution, the higher the risk of COVID-19 infection, the severer the illness, and the higher the death rate from coronavirus infection," the expert explains
The doctor sees the solution in increasing green areas in the city, developing public transport, constructing bike lanes and pedestrian zones, and using special stoves that are certified and have the technology of complete combustion of solid fuel.
Smog as a criterion of stability
Government officials do not live on Mars: they breathe the same air as the other residents. They smelled trouble and, in 2018, signed a five-year Comprehensive Action Plan to Improve the Environmental Situation in Bishkek. A year later, they re-read what had been written, revised what had been planned, and created an interdepartmental working group to improve the environmental situation in Bishkek.
The Plan's implementation measures, which the society pins their hopes on, are grouped based on pollution sources:
Thermal energy / heating with a focus on less polluting fuels: gas and renewable energy sources for the single-family home areas
Air quality monitoring and control
Activities related to the improvement of various infrastructures in the city to reduce air pollution emissions
It's planned to improve the environmental situation in Bishkek at the expense of funds provided by the republican and the local budgets as well as funds raised from various donors.
Plans, donors, commissioners, and governments change in Kyrgyzstan with habitual regularity. The only thing that remains unchanged is the smog over the capital.