Uzbekistan is finally starting to address its air pollution problem

Uzbekistan's capital Tashkent covered in dust and smog. Screenshot of the image from public Telegram channel. Fair use.

On January 14, a group of environmental activists, bloggers, and celebrities conducted a flash mob called “Toza havo kerak” (Clean air is needed) in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent. Its goal was to attract the attention of ordinary people and government officials to environmental problems, particularly poor air quality. The participants held up posters that called for reducing the construction of new buildings, stopping the cutting down of trees, and installing air purification filters in factories.

Another set of posters asked where the clean air had gone and complained that people were breathing dust instead of clean air. One of the organizers, an environmental blogger Mutabar Khushvaktova, expressed her “hope that the situation will change for the better” because all the stakeholders are not indifferent, and if “everyone unites and understands the importance of this problem, the situation will naturally improve.”

Here is an Instagram post with one of the flash mob participants, admin of a popular Telegram channel, holding a poster that says: “Decrease the number of new buildings, stop cutting down trees.”

Uzbekistan’s air pollution problem has been growing worse every year. In winter, Tashkent regularly joins the list of top 10 most polluted cities in the world. In December 2023, Tashkent recorded the second-highest air pollution levels, coming behind only India’s Delhi.

Until recently, the problem was shoved under the rug and off the list of priorities by the authorities. It has become impossible to ignore any further, and all the stakeholders are coming together to tackle it. The amount of the harmful PM2.5 particles in the air routinely exceeds the recommended norm by the World Health (WHO) organization by by several orders of magnitude. For example, on January 19, the level of PM2.5 particles was 55.8 μg/m3, which exceeds the WHO recommendations by 11.1 times.

Long-term exposure to these particles has inflammatory, carcinogenic, and cytotoxic effects and leads to the development of allergies and adversely affects human life expectancy. Tashkent residents have been complaining about poor sleep and increase of allergies due to the poor air quality. The problem even entered popular culture when a popular rapper Konsta, released a song called “Xavo” (Air), in which he raised the issue of environmental degradation and air pollution in Tashkent.

Here is a YouTube video of Konsta's song “Xavo.”

The list of reasons behind this dire environmental situation is long, with most of them being anthropogenic. The Director of Uzbekistan’s Center for Hydrometeorological Service Sherzod Khabibullaev outlined burning of coal and fuel oil for heating, the widespread usage of high pollutant AI-80 gasoline by vehicles, emissions by industrial plants around Tashkent, and chaotic construction that blocks the airflow as the main culprits. The Ministry of Ecology issued a similar list of explanations, adding the illegal cutting down of trees in the city as another main reason.

The attempts to right the ship are underway. On January 12, the Ministry of Ecology shared plans to improve air quality in the country, which incudes installing dust and gas cleaning equipment at industrial plants and adding more stations for environmental monitoring. Also, the ministry published a 12-point plan to reduce air pollution in Tashkent, proposing to build a green belt consisting of trees and plants around the city, and ban the sale of the AI-80 gasoline and usage of fuel oil, among other measures.

Here is a YouTube video about air pollution in Tashkent.

Civil society is chipping in as well. On January 12, the national movement “Yuksalish” (Rising) proposed 10 priority measures to address air pollution, based on interviews with experts, researchers, activists, and environmental journalists. There is a growing realization that returning clean air requires a whole-of-nation approach with contributions from every citizen.

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