Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

If the Bullets Don’t Get You, the Filthy Air of Kabul Will

There was an article in the paper this morning about air quality in Kabul, or more to the point, the lack of quality. According to scientific studies, government officials, and United Nations experts the air is so foul that more people die from respiratory illnesses than from the on-going war with Taliban and insurgents.

And while no one can track down the supposed studies that support it, there is a firm belief in Kabul that up to 30% of the air pollution is comprised of fecal matter.

At this time of year the problem is not quite as bad because the daytime temperatures are low.  But, during hot windy weather it is particularly acute and the reek of human waste brings tears to the eyes and deep hacking coughs to the lungs.

Bad and befouled air is frequently seen in the wake of wars, humanitarian disasters, and out of control capitalism. Relief workers and others succumb to what is known as the Rwanda Cough and it can last for weeks. And where there is war and disaster there is poor or non-existant sanitation.

Coughing can get so violent that it can result in pulled back muscles, and I’ve even heard it said, broken ribs. 

The air in Kabul is full of fecal matter because this is a city built for 1.5 million people yet there are 5 million (or possibly many more, no one is sure) crammed into it and the sewage system simply cannot deal with it all.  Then too, farmers use “night soil”, as it is politely called, to fertilize their crops.  It is quite overpowering to drive past the fields. I don’t know how the farmers stand it. They use it of course because it does work as a good and cheap fertilizer.

Personally, I won’t touch anything grown in Kabul.

The only fresh fruit and vegetables I will eat are those that I know have been flown in from Germany or Dubai.  Of course the local fatty-tailed sheep and cattle graze on this stuff but I figure that the danger of contamination from meat is a lot lower.

Yet, fecal matter in the dust is not the biggest part of the air pollution problem.  

Dusty Jalalabad Road east -- typical driving conditions

The Dusty Kabiul Jalalabad Road East — typical driving conditions

Most of the heating and cooking is done using wood fires.  All of the vehicles are diesel and most have not been serviced for a long time, especially the thousands of former Soviet trucks and cars which never had much in the way of emission controls anyway. 

The wood smoke and diesel fumes make breathing quite hard at times.  I have sometimes seen the pollution so bad that you almost need headlights at noon.

Things are not much better outside Kabul. 

On the east side of the city there are quite a few brick kilns.  Just about everything is made of fired mud brick and the whole eastern region is dotted with volcano shaped kilns, perhaps thirty or forty feet tall, vomiting pitch black smoke from burning waste oil, diesel, wood, or whatever the operators can chuck in to dry the bricks.  I would say it is like looking at the devil’s kitchen except for one other Afghan enterprise that I still cannot believe, although I have seen enough of them to leave no doubt.  There is no way the devil could put up with it, things are that bad.

Before I explain, let me say that Afghans are the hardest working people I have ever seen.  These ar

A typical day in Kabul. The smoke is from thousands of decrepit vehicles and countless wood fired furnaces and stoves. This is considered clear

A typical day in Kabul. The smoke is from thousands of decrepit vehicles and countless wood fired furnaces and stoves. This is considered clear

e not Kosovo Refugees waiting for handouts. These people get down in the dirt and work their asses off.  Absolutely everything is used to turn a profit.  I have seen men on the side of the road selling piles of dried cattle dung for use as fuel.  Coca-Cola cans are hammered into a bewildering variety of tin household goods, and there is very little trash blowing around because it can be recycled for a profit. Every kid seems to be a garbage collector.

So with that as a national characteristic perhaps it isn’t that surprising to learn that there are people who make a living by making home heating fuel, paraffin, diesel, and even gasoline by cooking crude oil in huge kettles.  And yes, the kettles can and do explode.

I’ve seen these home refineries in the Kunduz area in the north, and just south of here in Logar Province, and I have been told that they can be found in a lot of other places, especially near sources of crude oil.

The process of making stuff like diesel, gasoline, and the chemicals that make plastics normally requires huge sprawling refineries and very sophisticated technology.  But the heart of the process is very simple.  As crude oil is heated, various products evaporate at particular temperatures.  So, as you heat crude oil the vapours of such fuels as kerosene, gasoline, diesel etc are produced at particular temperatures.  All you have to do is collect the vapour at a particular temperature and cool it to get whatever.

And that is what the Afghan home refineries do.  Crude oil is heated in a big sealed kettle and a guy measures the temperature to know when to start collecting the vapour.  The trouble is that this is a very very dangerous business.  There are obviously highly explosive vapours leaking out all the time and the stuff that is collected in open drums is just as bad.  Imagine then the potential for hideous disaster when you have one of these heated kettles producing gasoline fumes and condensed gasoline liquid and you have an open wood fire roaring under the kettle.

Lethal accidents are so common that most of the operations are done in deep pits or underground which of course only helps to concentrate the vapours but does limit the blast damage.

And of course the fuel that is produced is not very clean which only adds to the air pollution when it is burned in cars, trucks, stoves and whatever.