Air Quality in Afghanistan: The Importance of Environmental Health and American Policy

By: Maija Ehlinger 

Barack Obama’s second inaugural speech this January provided an unmistakable message to the American public and the world. With a renewed sense of hope and optimism, Obama reminded us that our generation inherited the revolutionary thoughts of 1776, the passion of the street marches in Selma, and the countless other moments that portrayed the very best of the American spirit.  His optimism gave way to a new progressive call to react to today’s problems, such as global warming and domestic inequalities.  While claiming the promise of technology, his speech called to use this new expertise to “maintain our economic vitality, [and] our forests and waterways.”

The New York Times had countless analyses of the day and attempts to forecast how the next four years will play out. Yet juxtaposed on the page, almost too perfectly next to the inauguration recap, was Rod Nordland’s article review from the Kabul Journal, which defined the problem of air pollutants in the recovering capital of Afghanistan.  Climatologists suggest that this Afghan city’s plateau geography, overcrowded streets and lack of proper sanitary measures produce an unhealthy haze over the city that rivals that found in Beijing. In fact, Kabul’s high PM 10 count, which counts the number of microns in the air that can enter the lungs and cause acute respiratory infections and cancerous lesions,[1] can be directly blamed for 600,000 asthma attacks and over 2,200 deaths annually.

Even though the US is moving closer to an official withdraw from Afghanistan, it is clear that the enduring legacy of American intervention in the region will be more than just wartime destruction; instead, success will be measured by how well military and governmental actions can provide a safer, more sustainable country for all people.  Since the issues of environmental health are so intrinsically linked to human rights, the ability to combat chronic diseases stemming from poor air or water will determine the course of prosperity in the region. While President Karzai has pledged money to research and fight pollution, the Afghan-equivalent of the EPA has been rendered almost useless by bureaucratic initiatives.

In the United States, Obama’s inaugural address echoed that it is our patriotic and religious duty[2] to work in solidarity on what some deem the progressive platform of climate change. But in this ever-connected world, we must remember “we are also the heirs to those who won the peace, and not just the war.”[3] With this, it is not enough just to win our own battles in the area. We must promote the interconnected promises of environmental protection, public health and thriving democratic creeds.

As the withdrawal from Afghanistan draws closer, we will attempt to form a collective memory of our possible legacy in the region. The reasons for starting military actions will be debated for years to come, and the overall success of our programs will be decided by the generations of the future. But for now, we must attempt to leave the best possible opportunities for a strong and prosperous future for all Afghan people. Such a future can only be secured if environmental health is an integral part of public policy.

[1] Rod Nordland, Despite a Whiff of unpleasant exaggeration, A City’s pollution is real, The New York Times. 21 January 2013.

[2] Suzanne Goldenberg, “Climate change moves to forefront in Obama’s second inaugural address” The Guardian. 21 January, 2013.

[3] President Obama’s second inaugural address (Transcript). 21 January, 2013. The Washington Post.

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