In the Balkans, winter cheer is darkened by a toxic smog

On Tuesday, the Macedonian capital Skopje was ranked the third most polluted city in the world, according to the monitor AirVisual. (File/AFP/Robert Atanasovki)
Updated 06 December 2018
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In the Balkans, winter cheer is darkened by a toxic smog

  • Five Balkan cities with coal or lignite-based industries are among Europe's top ten most polluted cities
  • The pollution levels reached alarming heights in early December

SARAJEVO: Winter is here and coal is burning, enveloping the Balkans in a toxic smog and turning its cities into some of the most polluted on the planet.
As hundreds of nations gather in Poland for the UN’s COP24 climate summit this week, residents in this corner of Europe are wondering when their governments will do anything to address an annual plague that is killing thousands.
The pollution levels reached alarming heights in early December.
On Tuesday, the Macedonian capital Skopje was ranked the third most polluted city in the world, while Sarajevo was fifth, according to the monitor AirVisual.
Pristina, the capital of Kosovo which relies on two coal-fired plants for more than 95 percent of its electricity, was not far behind.
“In three decades of teaching, I have never seen so many children cough and get sick,” said Vesna Delevska, a 56-year-old teacher in Skopje.
“On the worst days, many parents don’t even send their children to school,” she told AFP, describing the conditions as “unbearable.”
Lignite-fired power plants across the region, many of which are old and pollute heavily, plus the burning of coal to warm individual homes, pump the air with toxins.
In Skopje and Sarajevo, a ring of mountains helps trap the hazardous air in valleys where residents live, shrouding them in a grey fog.
An October UN report said fossil fuel emissions must be slashed by half in the next 12 years to limit global temperature rises.
But Balkan governments are bucking the European trend by boosting their investment coal, with plans to build new power plants across the region.
The effects are plain to see. Five Balkan cities with coal or lignite-based industries are among Europe’s top ten most polluted cities, according to a 2017 World Health Organization (WHO) report.
They include Tuzla (Bosnia), Pljevlja (Montenegro), Skopje, Tetovo and Bitola (Macedonia).
The only ones benefiting from the pollution are those selling air purifiers, which one vendor in Macedonia’s capital said are flying off the shelves “like hot cakes.”
“People are emptying their wallets to breathe clean air,” said Vanco, who runs a store in Skopje and declined to give his last name.
An air purifier costs about 400 euros ($450) — close to the average monthly salary in Macedonia and several of its Balkan neighbors.
But residents are digging into their savings, “even borrowing to buy the purifiers,” said Vanco. “Especially families with children,” he added.
The economic and human costs are high in a poor region with little extra cash to spare.
According to a WHO study, pollution cost the Western Balkans countries more than $55 billion in 2010.
It also caused more than 36,000 premature deaths that year across the region, which is home to 23 million people — a proportion six times higher than in a country like France.
Since then, there have been no major efforts to curb pollution.
This winter the Macedonian Ministry of Health has announced the distribution of masks to 43,000 chronically ill people.
But Jane Dimeski, an activist with the citizen group “STOP air pollution,” sees it as a “short-term response...more than a serious fight against pollution.”
In Bosnia, the hazardous air shaves “44,000 years of life” off the country’s population every year, according to a 2018 UN report.
It costs the poor nation nearly a fifth of its GDP through lost work and school days, plus health expenses and fuel costs, the UN said.
Fuad Prnjavorac, a 69-year-old Sarajevo resident who suffers from asthma, tries to escape the city for cleaner air on Mount Trebivic, which overlooks the capital.
From that view, the city was completely obscured by the dense grey smog this week.
“It’s terrible in town at this time of year, impossible to breathe,” he told AFP.
In early December, the air had an average of 320 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles, with peaks above 400.
Anes Podic, who runs as Bosnian environmental organization Eko-Akcija, blames the government for ignoring the problem.
“Someone has judged that the lungs of Sarajevo residents are five times more resistant than those of Paris,” she said with sarcasm at a recent press conference, referring to how French authorities set 80 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particles as their alert level.
“When the problem appears, as it does every year, authorities ignore it at first, then seem to work on it, and finally, their only measure is to wait for a gust of wind,” she added.


Car boom brings gridlock misery to ‘green and happy’ Bhutan

Updated 38 min 17 sec ago
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Car boom brings gridlock misery to ‘green and happy’ Bhutan

  • Bhutan has seen a more than five-fold increase in cars, buses and trucks on its roads in the past two decades
  • Congestion and lack of parking now makes driving stressful in the tiny Himalayan kingdom where there are no traffic light

THUMPHU: Famed for valuing Gross National Happiness over economic growth, Bhutan is a poster child for sustainable development.
But booming car sales may impact efforts to preserve its rare status as a carbon negative country — and an increase in traffic is testing the good humor of its citizens.
Bhutan has seen a more than five-fold increase in cars, buses and trucks on its roads in the past two decades, according to transport authority director general Pemba Wangchuk with capital Thimphu hardest hit by the influx of vehicles.
Phuntsho Wangdi, a media consultant, says the congestion and lack of parking now makes driving stressful in the tiny Himalayan kingdom where there are no traffic lights.
“I wish there were fewer cars. It wasn’t like this before,” he adds of life in Thimpu, which is home to half the cars in the country.
The nation’s economy has grown 7.5 percent each year in the past decade, according to the World Bank. Officials estimate there is now one car for every seven people in Bhutan, which has a total population of 750,000.
But the nation’s narrow country lanes and outdated city roads can barely cope. A lack of infrastructure, along with poor driving etiquette — some simply leave their cars parked in the middle of the road — compounds the problem.
“Every year the number of cars and the number of people are increasing, and the roads have remained the same, and it’s a problem for us,” Lhendup, a taxi driver, tells AFP.
Morning rush hour journeys that once took five minutes now take more than half an hour.
This may seem a small figure compared to the hours of gridlock faced by commuters in Manila, Jakarta, and Bangkok, but it is a step-change for the Bhutanese who say the situation has rapidly deteriorated in the past year.
“Its chaotic. I eat my breakfast in the car now to save time,” says Kuenzang Choden, who drops her four-year-old daughter at school every day before heading to work.
The traffic jams are a sign of the wider economic changes the nation is facing. Bhutan is renowned for prioritizing Gross National Happiness over GDP, and has captured tourists’ imagination as a tranquil, idyllic land, but there are signs of malcontent.
According to the World Bank’s 2018 report, the youth unemployment rate is high, as is rural to urban migration, which puts a strain on the resources of towns and cities. And despite it’s reputation as a place where well-being is prioritized — it ranked 95th out of 156 countries in the 2019 UN World Happiness Report.
The proliferation of the Internet and smartphones are fueling modern desires, while dealers are filling their showrooms with new brands and models from Japan and South Korea to lure buyers.
And while taxes have increased and restrictions put on vehicle loans, car buyers are not discouraged.
Local financial institutions gave 3.2 billion ngultrum ($46 million) in car loans in 2015, but by last year the amount had reached 6.7 billion ngultrum ($96 million).
The figures please local businessmen but worry environmentalists keen to ensure Bhutan remains one of the world’s greenest countries.
Environmental activist Yeshey Dorji explains: “As a nation that prides itself on being a carbon-negative country, the increase in the number of fossil fuel vehicles speaks poorly of our leadership position in environmental conservation.”
Bhutan and Suriname, both with lush forests, are the only two countries to claim they are carbon negative, absorbing more carbon pollution than they give off.
Methane from cows, the burning of crops and other farm activities used to be Bhutan’s main source of greenhouse gases. But that has changed in recent years to industry and cars.
Bhutan’s constitution dictates that at least 60 percent of the country must be forest and the figure is currently above 70 percent.
But Bhutan is now importing more in fossil fuels than it exports in hydropower to India — the country’s biggest revenue earner.
Public transport is poor, particularly in Thimpu, which is home to 100,000 people but barely 40 buses.
The capital’s mayor Kinlay Dorji plans to introduce bus-only lanes on city roads and wants to buy more buses.
“Its time for radical measures,” he says.
“We have to make public transport more attractive and discourage owning cars,” he adds, warning that unless action was taken Thimphu risked grinding to a standstill.
To ease congestion, the city is also constructing its first two multi-story car parks that will each take about 600 cars.
The National Environment Commission insists Bhutan is still carbon negative despite the traffic jams and vehicle boom, but wants to stop things worsening.
Commission secretary Dasho Sonam P. Wangdi explains: “We cannot stop people from buying cars, but we can introduce alternative, less polluting cars such as the hybrid and electric ones to reduce carbon footprint.”