Small country of Kosovo has air pollution that rivals Bejing

Obiliq, Kosovo – February 15, 2018 - One of Kosovo’s two coal-fired thermal power plants in the town of Obiliq a few kilometers from downtown Pristina and home to one of the world’s largest coal lignite reserves. During the winter, it is an everyday reality to smell and breath the toxic fumes from the burning coal used to heat homes and buildings.​ The Kosovo government is planning to build ​a third lignite coal power plant ​to replace and refurbish the aging coal plants but local and international environmental ​and advocacy ​groups want to transform Kosovo into a clean energy leader​ and not rely on coal as its sole energy source.PRISTINA, Kosovo – The rancid smell of burning coal and wood perfumes the air here, even in early spring.

That’s because a mile outside the capital, Pristina, two coal-fired power plants in the town of Obiliq spew toxic fumes that sometimes make the air quality in this tiny Balkan country worse than Beijing, Mumbai and Delhi.

It's so bad that it has spawned protests, apps and even its own hashtag.

“If I hade the opportunity to leave for somewhere else, within 24 hours I would move from this place,” said Elfete Krasniqi, 27, an Obiliq resident. “My son who is almost three-years-old can’t go one month without getting bronchitis – he can’t get used to the environment here.”

Corruption, political instability, economic stagnation and a restive Serbian minority have marked Kosovo, where citizens are ethnically Albanians, since a US-led NATO bombing campaign helped the country split off from Serbia in 2008. But those problems in the long run could pale in comparison to the health challenges that face the country from poor air quality.

Haki Jashari, the director of the small hospital in Obiliq, says the pollution caused from the plants and nearby coal lignite mines – Kosovo has the fifth largest reserves of brown coal in the world – has taken a toll on people’s health.

Brown coal is considered the dirtiest fossil fuel. 

“The issue of environmental pollution is related to the disease in children and the elderly, especially in cancerous and respiratory diseases,” he said from his office that overlooks one of the aging coal-fired power plants, which the World Bank has called the “worst single point source of pollution in Europe.”

Jashari said he sees three new cases of cancer on average each month in the last year and that serious diseases usually affecting the elderly are also appearing in the young and middle aged.

“The pollution of the environment is outside of any norm,” he said.

Thick layers of smog often hover over Pristina, city of 200,000, during the cold months as most buildings’ heating systems use coal and wood. Cars and buses that operate with few or no emissions inspections contribute to the haze.

Pristina residents didn’t know how bad they had it until the U.S. embassy started to measure air quality and release the data in real time on the internet two years ago. The data registered hazardous levels that were at least three times what health experts identify as acceptable. Residents can now monitor their air quality on smartphone apps.

"For me, it was interesting (for the embassy) to give this data and empower people,” said Fabien Techene, an independent environmentalist living in Pristina. “Now we should try to communicate as much as possible the fact that it's not a daily problem or weekly problem, it's a yearly problem.”

Twenty-one-year old human rights and youth activist Ron Idrizaj was one of the organizers of protests against pollution earlier this year, having launched a campaign called #Breathe that aimed to galvanize citizens to call for action to improve the air in Pristina.

"I believe it's a human right to live with air that will not kill you,” Idrizaj said. “Knowing the fact that air quality in Kosovo is worse than in China, for example, even though Kosovo doesn't have corporations or other things, can have an impact on air pollution.

He was planning more actions, he said.

“We should put pressure on the government and municipalities at all time of the year, not only during the winter or autumn," Idrizaj said.

Some cities are so concerned about air pollution that they are trying to go car free for certain days (Paris) and contemplating banning diesel engines from city centers (Stuttgart, Germany).

However, the Kosovo government is planning to build ​a third lignite coal power plant in Obiliq ​to replace the aging coal plants.

That defies local environmental ​​groups' aims to transform Kosovo into a clean energy leader​ and not rely on coal as its sole energy source.

In the meantime, locals contemplate masks as they are losing hope.

“The air is very polluted here and I feel very bad about it, but we don’t know what to do about it,” said 24-year-old Kastriot Krasniqi, a bus ticket collector from Obiliq. “We have to live here. Although there are continually promises that this place is going to be better, still nothing changes.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

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