PRISTINA, Kosovo — Air pollution in this tiny young nation rivals big cities like Beijing, Mumbai and New Delhi. The dirty air here is so bad that it has spawned protests, apps and even its own hashtag.
Two coal-fired power plants a mile outside the capital in the town of Obiliq spew the rancid smell of burning coal year-round, with wood stoves adding smoke to the mix. Pedestrians in Pristina, with 200,000 people, don masks when they go outside during the winter.
“If I had 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 3 years old, can’t go one month without getting bronchitis.”
Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, has the world’s fifth largest reserve of brown coal, considered the dirtiest fossil fuel. And the World Bank has called the country’s aging coal-fired power plants the “worst single point source of pollution in Europe.”
While Kosovo is plagued with political instability, economic stagnation and a restive Serbian minority, those problems in the long term could pale in comparison to the health challenges the country faces because of poor air quality.
Residents in Pristina weren’t aware how bad the pollution was until two years ago, when the U.S. Embassy started to measure air quality and released the data in real time on the Internet. The data registered hazardous levels at least three times above what health experts consider acceptable. Residents can now monitor their air quality on smartphone apps.
Fabien Techene, an independent environmentalist in Pristina, said the embassy pollution data empowers people to realize “it’s not a daily problem or weekly problem, it’s a yearly problem.”
Pollution from the power plants and nearby lignite mines have already taken a toll on people’s health, said Haki Jashari, director of the small hospital in Obiliq.
“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 old power plants.
Jashari said he has seen an average of three new cancer cases each month over the past year. Serious diseases that usually strike seniors are 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 during the cold months, when most building heating systems use coal and wood. Cars and buses operate with few or no emissions inspections, contributing to the haze.
Pristina did ban cars from entering the city center in January, when air pollution levels became hazardous.
Ron Idrizaj, 21, helped organize protests against pollution this year. He launched a campaign called #Breathe to galvanize citizens to call for action to improve the air.
“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 said he plans more protests.
“We should put pressure on the government and municipalities at all times of the year, not only during the winter or autumn,” Idrizaj said.
Other cities in Europe have taken drastic measures to curb air polltuion. Paris tried to go car-free on certain days, but officials there now want to ban diesel cars by 2025. Stuttgart, Germany, is contemplating a ban of diesel engine vehicles from the city center.
Kosovo’s government plans 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. One of the country’s main environmental groups — the Kosovo Civil Society Consortium for Sustainable Development — stresses the dire need for people and the economy to move toward sustainable energy in the future.
“The air is very polluted here and … we don’t know what to do about it,” said Kastriot Krasniqi, 24, a bus ticket collector from Obiliq. “There are continually promises that this place is going to be better. Still nothing changes.”