Sianna King speaks to students in the Kazakh capital about air pollution and climate consciousness among youth in the country
Astana, Kazakhstan / Sianna King
Astana was listed as the 14th most polluted major city in the world by IQAir’s live feed from March 2, 2023. When I checked later in the day, the Kazakh capital city was still stubbornly sat in the top 100. To my alarm, the area where I live, on the hyper-modernised left bank of the river, was flagged on the site’s interactive map as the most polluted area in the city.
While these statistics were appalling, I was not entirely surprised . On paper, Astana isn’t even Kazakhstan most polluted city, and Kyrgyzstan’s Bishkek is usually described as Central Asia’s most polluted capital. However, during Astana’s 6 month-long winter – and especially in weeks with little wind – air quality in the Kazakh capital can plummet dramatically, as foul air hangs low over the city, unable to blow back out onto the vast Kazakh steppe.
While Astana is also plagued by other environmental problems such as water pollution and waste generation, air pollution is by far the most tangible threat to the environment. Discussions on implementing climate-friendly practices in the country and region are brought to a standstill by the lack of a robust public transport system. Unreliable and infrequent buses are the only way to travel without a car, and the roads struggle to support the city’s population of well over 1 million. The resultant stench of fuel is inescapable in huge swathes of the city during the winter months, especially during traffic rush hours.
For the capital’s residents, including university students, pollution is an unavoidable, daily battle. Lolita, 19, was born in Astana, but spent some time last year studying in St Petersburg in Russia, a city known for its efficient public transport. She noticed the difference in air quality immediately: “I think in Petersburg the air is a lot cleaner, because there are a lot more trees there – a lot more – and they have a metro, and trolleybuses, trams, which are electric. Actually, many people over there choose to travel by metro even if they have their own cars, because it’s faster and more convenient. So naturally there’s less pollution because of that.”
“The people who speak about these topics [in Kazakhstan] are teenagers. But they can’t really do anything."
Fellow student Alina, also 19, has the opposite story to tell. Born and raised in Aktobe, a big oil and gas boom city in the west of Kazakhstan, she reveals that in comparison to the oil and gas cities in the west, Astana’s air seems relatively clean. “I moved to Astana a year ago to study. Here the air is much cleaner,” she tells me, “In Aktobe, for example, the air is dry, dirty. I like it here.” For Alina, the harmful effects of climate change are more evident in these western regions than in Astana: “At the moment it’s not really a problem here, because we’re in the north, and it’s so cold. Further down the line it will be a problem, I reckon, and there’s already a massive difference between different cities in Kazakhstan. In Aktobe, for example, it can reach 40 degrees in summer, and that’s awful.” While environmental considerations are gaining traction in Astana, the overwhelming impacts of climate change in cities like Aktobe mean that residents of western cities now “understand – even adults, even parents – that it’s a huge problem, and people are worrying.”
Young people, especially students, are generally more concerned by ecological issues now than before, according to both Alina and Lolita. However, these concerns have not yet been channeled into organised movements or demands, unlike in western European countries, where groups like Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate have become a prominent part of youth culture. In Kazakhstan, spontaneous protests are illegal. As such, national and regional climate change movements have had little opportunity to take hold here. Alina acknowledges that, for the most part, “The people who speak about these topics [in Kazakhstan] are teenagers. But they can’t really do anything. The maximum they can do is write on the internet.”
In Russia, Lolita says, people of all ages are more interested in the topic of climate change than they are in Kazakhstan. “Over here, only a limited circle of people [are interested in ecological issues]. Students worry the most, and they are better informed about these topics,” she says. But aside from that, their options are limited: “There are people that organise some sorts of picket lines and rallies, but there’s very few of them, because for us all protests are suppressed and dispersed quickly. So, if people do express an opinion about it, it’ll primarily be on social media.
“Of course, I want to believe that something will change. Maybe there needs to be a tipping point where people will realise that they need to recycle their rubbish and litter less, and to protect nature, but it seems to me that they just haven’t got there yet.”
Both interviews were conducted in Russian in Astana, Kazakhstan and translated into English by Sianna King.