Pavel Plotitsyn
Almaty, Kazakhstan
author of the project
Pavel, for how long have you been dealing with the topic of air quality in Kazakhstan?
I have been monitoring air quality in Almaty for a little over three years. I never planned to do this; in general, I am very far from social activities; I am a misanthrope by nature, and I prefer to communicate with people less. I am an engineer; I have other interests, other tasks. It's just I had a problem because I live in Almaty, and the air quality is bad here. I assembled a device that monitored air quality in my home and then enabled data transfer to the server, designed a website, and gave three or four devices to my friends: that's how it all started. Then, all this grew into a rather serious process, and now, I don't even know how many sensors are simultaneously working there.
Wait, what do you mean "assembled a sensor"? At home? On your lap?
Well, not on the lap, on a desk, let's say, and not at home but in an office, but generally, yes: this is quite feasible at the current stage of technology. That is, a person with knowledge in electronics and programming can easily assemble such a device using open information on the Internet.
Is this like a thermometer on the window? What does it show?
This is a device that is placed outside the window and measures the concentration of PM 2.5 PM 10 particles; it does it in real time and allows seeing information about air quality at a specific point.
The substances that you named, what are they?
Well, look, the story about pollutants is as follows: we have gases and various chemical compounds; there are many of them, and there is also a category of pollutants called fine particles. They go without specifying the chemical composition: it is important for us to know just their size. Why just the size? Because, it turns out, the size is the main damaging factor; due to the small size, the particles penetrate into the human body and cause great harm to it. These fine particles are now the main components of pollution, which is standardized by WHO and analyzed in terms of air quality. It is PM 2.5 that carries the greatest danger.
And does your instrument measure the size of these particles?
WHO standardizes the concentration of these particles expressed in mass over the volume of air: micrograms per cubic meter. The device is configured in such a way that it records the number of these micrograms per cubic meter. The higher the concentration of particles, the more dangerous the air is for breathing. The device records and displays standardized values for the concentration of these particles.
So you made your first measurements; what did you see there?
The result is as follows: during the heating season (from mid-October to mid-April), the concentration of this particular pollutant is many times higher than any permissible concentration, both by WHO standards and by our Kazakhstani standards.
You published your measurements; what was the impression of the people of Kazakhstan?
I posted the data on a website that everyone could access then and now; the information is completely open; I publish statistics regularly, and I've been uploading general statistics all this time. Most people are unaware of the problem of air pollution. Those who are aware are busy arguing who is more to blame. There are very few people who are really trying to do something or at least understand what needs to be done in this situation.
What should and can be done?
There is a whole range of measures, but the problem is that each individual person at his or her own level cannot solve this problem. Well, that is, you can solve it for yourself, for your family: to assemble a filtration system for an apartment, for example; but globally, on a city scale, the will of the officials is needed here, their interest in correcting the situation. For cities like Bishkek or Almaty, we need a complete abolishment of solid fuel burning both at the power plants and in the single-family home areas; it is necessary to develop public transport in order to reduce the number of cars. We need control over the burning of garbage and over the work of barbecue houses and everything else; that is, it is necessary to reduce the amount of pollution emitted into the atmosphere as much as possible because cities such as Bishkek or Almaty are mountainous, so ventilation in them is much worse. In winter, we have the phenomenon of "temperature inversion of the atmosphere," where the air above is warmer than below. This prevents ventilation, that is, the dispersion of pollution, so pollution accumulates. We need complete gasification of the single-family home areas, and then it is necessary to completely ban the burning of coal, firewood, and garbage; electricity generation must also come from cleaner sources.
We understand that this information is not new for the relevant ministries and departments. They understand all this, they know all this, right?
Actually, no. The trick is that the people responsible for making these decisions, first, are incompetent, and second, they do not have reliable information. For example, for many years, the local government of Almaty assured us that 80% of pollution came from cars, but when the lockdown happened and measurements showed that air pollution almost did not change, it became obvious to everyone that all this was a lie. They are given superficial, inaccurate data, and based on this data, they make their ineffective and unprofessional decisions. Also, you need to take into account that coal burning, for example (I don't know about in Kyrgyzstan, but in Kazakhstan), is a big business. Coal mines belong to our quasipublic company Samruk Kazyna, which also owns the Almaty power plant. That is, for them, this is an excellent vertical integration: they extract high-ash coal, they sell it, and they burn it. They make money on it, and for them, the exclusion of coal means the loss of a huge share of the profit. Because no-one needs this coal; it is impossible to sell it; it is of such poor quality that no one will buy it. So there are the financial interests of these structures, and then there is the unwillingness to change anything, unwillingness to work; it is convenient for them that it happens the way it happens. Local governments responsible for making decisions are not motivated in any way because it is a very difficult process for them, very problematic, affecting the interests of the oligarchy. They don't need this level of stress; they don't have the motivation to make the city better. We do not elect heads of the local governments; they are appointed. They do not need to be liked by the people of the city; they report only to the president. If you sum it up, the motivation of those who need to make decisions is very low. They just don't need it.
How seriously do those who can influence the solution of the problem take your data and statements?
At first, they were trying to fight the project, to dispute the data, but now, we have a very good mutual understanding with Kazhydromet (the government agency responsible for measuring air quality). At the moment, they accept data from my devices and use it in their official statistics. But the problem is that there is a big gap between defining a problem and making decisions. This is done by different people, and those who have to make decisions, even if they see these numbers, they do not publicly comment on them in any way. Now, people seem to talk about the transfer of the power plant to gas, but again, they're planning to stretch this process for 10 years. That is, those who make decisions are afraid to make decisions that would radically change something.
In our project, you are engaged in data processing; how labor-intensive is it?
It is a big problem that the Hydromets of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have a rather unusual approach to data collection. Very often, the data is incomparable, and the data that you need to get, in the context in which you need to get it, is often unavailable. Earlier, Kazhydromet tried to sell this data. So the researchers who are trying to tackle this topic have great difficulties in obtaining comparable, reliable data. Now, the situation in Kazakhstan is changing; it has become easier. Now, operational data is even published on video boards in Almaty, but this is not enough. This data should be absolutely open and public, it should be much better prepared. I know that my colleagues who tried to get this data did it unofficially in most cases, that is, using some connections. As far as I understand, there is no public system to inform citizens or publish environment-related information in our countries.
Where does environmental awareness come from?
Environmental awareness is the result of public policy. Unfortunately, if the government's policies do not imply the involvement of citizens in education in general and in environmental education in particular, environmental awareness will not arise by itself. It is part of the ideological work. It must be taught from childhood. It is customary to criticize everything Soviet, but the structure of the youth movements "Little Octobrists to Pioneers to Komsomol members" was built perfectly in terms of educating the younger generation and forming consciousness. Obviously, it was to promote the Soviet ideology, but the mechanism itself was excellent. Children were explained from their childhood how to behave, and the person absorbed these rules. Now, people are almost left to their own devices. I don't know about other countries, but in Kazakhstan, there is no work with the population at all. Ideology was replaced by the idea that one should strive to make as much money as possible. In fact, this is the only thing that worries citizens. The government is systematically destroying education, and it does not come to ideology. Non-governmental organizations now, in fact, work more effectively with the population than the government does as they teach people and involve them in some green movements, motivating them to collect garbage separately. But, in my opinion, these efforts are not enough, simply because these organizations do not have sufficient resources to involve the entire population. This will take years; if you start now, the population will get environmental awareness and the correct approach to the environment in 20 years. That is, the next generation will be better if you start right now.
Diana Svetlichnaya
project mentor
Maria Kazakova
design, layout
The project is implemented by n-ost (Germany) and the International Center for Journalism MediaNet (Kazakhstan) in partnership with the Center for Media Development (Kyrgyzstan), and the editorial offices of (Uzbekistan) and Asia-Plus (Tajikistan), as well as the online magazine Vlast (Kazakhstan) with the support of the Federal Ministry of Economic

Cooperation and Development of Germany.
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