Two days officially off – this was the kind off weekend many governmental employees had long been looking forward to. Now it has been decided that for Kabul citizens it will become a reality – to protect the environment. Less work means less pollution says the Afghan government. Particularly in winter, smog is a tremendous problem in the Afghan capital. The recent decree is a big step in terms of raising awareness for environmental problems.
Winter is a tough period of the year in most parts of Afghanistan. The freezing cold makes heating a question of survival. Everybody burns what he or she can find, and especially when power is not stable, generators further contribute to the smog. The latter is, of course, mostly a problem of the capital. While multiplying the number of its inhabitants, the infrastructure has not grown at the same pace. Now the government has decided to take action. As of last week, employees of the government in Kabul will be off not only on Friday but also on Thursday. Thereby, the government intends to reduce transport as well as work-related needs for electricity and heating.
The National Environment Protection Agency NEPA has strongly advocated for taking measures against air pollution. But also in other areas, citizens of Kabul have recently noticed that government and municipality have become more committed to environmental affairs. New garbage containers have been distributed, men in orange clean wild dumps and empty the ditches alongside the roads. There is a greenery plan by Kabul municipality and despite all other hardship the Afghan population is going through, it has been recognized it seems that environmental problems are an integral part. Air pollution, water pollution and systems overloaded by the amount of waste and waste water of the city have harmful consequences for the citizens. The weaker ones, children and elderly people bear the heaviest brunt, but in fact, this is a problem for every citizen.
Very softly, the government also encourages citizens to consider the use of private cars on Mondays and Thursdays and use them only when absolutely necessary. True, traffic is an ever growing problem and most of the cars in Kabul’s streets are old and considerably contribute to pollution. However, they are still in use because many citizens cannot afford more modern ones and public transport cannot be relied upon. While public in name, it happened to be privatized several years ago. When looking at most buses, it seems like a miracle that they are still running, and the companies taking the lease seem to see no need for improvements – or cannot afford it. And here, it makes sense to look also on who are the passengers: Whoever can afford it does not use public transport because it is crowded and uncomfortable if not unsafe. What for men still might be OK, for most women simply does not work. Other than men, they do not have much choice. Either they can afford private transport, or they walk – if they feel confident in doing so.
Riding bicycles in today’s Kabul looks dangerous, with car drivers paying little respect to the more vulnerable participants in traffic. But once again: What might be tolerable and feasible for men, encounters social norms when it comes to women. Tolerance for women on the “passenger’s seat “ of a bike seems to grow but for the time being it is difficult to imagine that one day it would be acceptable that they themselves mounted bicycles. When discussing ways of reducing traffic and reforming Kabul’s traffic infrastructure, it should not be forgotten to include these aspects. Many things may take time here, but at the same time, hardly anything is impossible here. In the 1970s, the Russian-installed Tram lines in the capital had female drivers.
To really tackle the complex environmental problems in Afghanistan, government, municipality, NGOs and the people work hand in hand. The measures introduced now might not yet be the key to success but the attention they raised has given much input to the debate of environmental affairs.
Goethe Institute Kabul supports a puppet theatre that on December 1, 2010 celebrated the premiere of its environmental play “Why do you escape, cow?” (http://www.goethe.de/ins/af/kab/en3905153.htm)
Regarding the recent environmental measures of the Afghan government, please also see the article of Kate Clark at the Afghan Analysts Network page. (http://www.aan-afghanistan.org/index.asp?id=1359)