It wasn’t long after stepping off the airplane, even before taking the first steps down the wobbly aluminum airplane stairs that I knew a different kind of air lingered in the capital city of Afghanistan. Anybody who has ever been to Kandahar, a place I have not been to, will tell you that there is a piercing smell of sewage that plagues that southern city, only second in population size to Kabul. I expected something similar in Kabul, where up to 3.5 million Afghans live in close quarters with little to show for a proper sewage and waste disposal system(besides the Kabul river). That’s not exactly the case here. With only about 15% Oxygen at this high altitude compared to 20 or 21% closer to sea level, there are many other things sharing the space in your lungs here.
There are many things that make the air quality here literally deadly(about 3,000 deaths per year linked to air pollution), the least of which is airborne feces. There are many rumors and even official government warnings, but the science doesn’t back up that theory, and there is about as much feces in the air as there is in any other place that has birds, insects, and other animals wandering around. Add to that the incredibly dry climate here that makes you wonder how any trees or birds are able to survive. I’m slightly more curious that the air will smell like when fall weather comes around and Kabulis use absolutely anything and everything that is flammable for cooking and heating their homes. One study I read suggests that approximately 1.6 million car tires are burnt annually in Kabul. So either there are lots of cars here running on their rims (would not surprise me) or this is a viable solution that provides a source of fuel to people. What’s left of their beautiful mountainous skyline is said to be reduced to a visibility of only a couple hundred meters when the air gets bad.
Never mind the 714 tons of Carbon Monoxide released from tires in addition to tons of other wonderful cancer causing compounds. A lot of toxic metals come from incinerating used motor oil, which gets burned at a rate of ohhhh……only about 20 million liters a year. That leaves us with about half a ton of chromium, a quarter ton of cadmium, and in conjunction with the use of leaded gasoline, about 240 tons of airborne lead. If I can get through this, it’ll be just me and the cockroaches after the apocalypse.
In all seriousness, I guess it’s just another part of experiencing Afghanistan. People here are a long way from worrying about environmental issues. To an average family here, any source of fuel will get them through another day. The odd time I see a patch of green grass growing under an air conditioner that’s dripping condensation and I find it’s very telling of how life is wanting to bloom, but something as simple as water is holding it back. So many seeds and spores are lying dormant until a bit of water ignites them to life. I’m very curious to see my first Kabul rainfall, where I imagine plants popping up everywhere, and bugs and birds buzzing around all over. I imagine a moist freshness that smells like the pine trees just took a deep breath and exhaled their sappy aroma through the streets. The local street cleaners with their long beards won’t be needing to walk up and down the roads with their watering cans to keep the dust down. More likely, we will all enjoy a bit of cool rain as it relieves the heat that penetrates and accumulates in the lifeless concrete and gravel around us.