Wednesday, January 19

Coal, an essential pollutant in the harsh Afghan winter

Coal is arriving in tons from mines in northern Afghanistan in a market near Kabul. Soon, many residents will burn it for heat and breathe some of the most polluted air in the world, for lack of an alternative in this winter of severe economic crisis.

Among the forty or so employees of Abdullah Rahimi, one of the managers of the market, not an inch of skin seems to have escaped the black dust.

Coal has slipped deep into the wrinkles of the elders. It is already well installed under the fingernails of the youngest, in their bronchi as well, while some are not even 15 years old.

They throw blocks of coal at each other to empty the trucks, push wheelbarrows loaded with bags, shovel piles, load customers’ vehicles.

“The salary depends on the number of clients. On average, we earn between 200 and 300 afghanis per day” (between 1.90 and 2.85 euros), explains one of them, Abdul Ghafar Karimi, 35 years old.

Before, he was a minor and better paid, “500 afghanis per day” (4.75 euros). But he changed jobs because it was “too dangerous”.

Every year, accidents in Afghan mines kill several people.

“People come to this market because it’s cheaper than in Kabul,” explains Abdullah Rahimi: 10,000 afghanis (95 euros) per tonne of coal, against more than 14,000 (132 euros) in town.

– Toxic fog –

Here, we are far from the discussions of the COP26 which took place at the beginning of the month in Glasgow (Scotland) to fight against climate change, and have designated coal among the main culprits. In the market, workers have not heard of it.

Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, remains a modest polluter. In 2018, an Afghan polluted on average 75 times less than an American (0.2 metric tons of CO2 per year, compared to about 15), according to the World Bank.

But pollution is wreaking havoc in Kabul. Every winter, the air in the capital, located at 1,800 meters above sea level, becomes heavy and noxious because of the fumes from domestic heaters with coal, wood and all other refuse that can be burned, from household garbage to car tires. .

From the surrounding mountains, we can clearly see the thick cloud of pollution that covers the basin where at least 5 million inhabitants live.

On Sunday, according to the site of the Swiss company IQ Air which measures air pollution in the world, Kabul was the sixth worst city in the world for air quality, behind New Delhi (India) and Lahore (Pakistan), enveloped in these these days of a thick fog of toxic pollution.

“If we had electricity and gas, people wouldn’t use coal,” said Abdullah Rahimi. “But it’s quite affordable” and they can’t “help it”.

“Global warming is a problem for the whole world. We are aware of it here. It is getting hotter and hotter, we no longer have snow every winter as before,” said a client, Amanullah Daudzai, dressed in a beige shalwar kamiz, the ample traditional Afghan dress.

– “Business at zero” –

“The pollution causes serious respiratory illnesses,” and “all Afghans know what coal does,” he continues. “But it’s cheaper”.

But in Kabul, the environment is far from the primary cause for concern. Since the Taliban regained power in August, international aid has dried up and the economy has partially come to a standstill. Unemployment is exploding, wages are no longer paid, poverty and hunger are spreading. And coal sells for less.

“We used to sell a load of one or two trucks in a day. Now we need 15 or 20 days,” sighs Abdullah Rahimi. Coal prices have increased 9% over the past year, mainly due to more expensive transportation.

Mohammad Yusuf Mangal, a 21-year-old real estate agent, has just bought five tonnes after negotiation. It will need six more to heat up all winter. “Business is at zero” but “we have to buy coal to survive” the winter, he says.

In another market, Sharifa Atayee, a 38-year-old widow with five dependent children who came to inquire about prices, gives up: “It’s too expensive this year,” she says. She does not know when she will be able to buy them back.

Before, she worked in the police force, but no longer has a job since the arrival of the Taliban. Now without pay, she may have sold all her gold and jewelry, it is not enough.

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