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Climate Issues in Bishkek. How is the City’s “Liver” Increasingly Affected?

«Living conditions deteriorate every year in Bishkek: high air temperature in summer, smog over the city in winter, constant reduction of green spaces for the sake of expanding roads, lack of irrigation system and other factors that give rise to much more global environmental and microclimate problems in the capital city,» – explains the ecologist, director of the Public Fund “Initiative Arch” (Инициатива Арча) Dmitry Vetoshkin.

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CABAR.asia: Earlier in the Soviet times, Bishkek was one of the greenest cities. How are things now?

Dmitry Vetoshkin. Photo: “Evening of a Hard Day” show.

Bishkek did not just have the status of a green city. The capital city was created on the territory of the steppes and semi-deserts, where no conditions for a comfortable stay existed. Especially for these reasons, the best architects of Ukraine and biologists of Russia were involved in the process.

In 1874, the remarkable botanist Alexei Mikhailovich Fetisov arrived in the city, who organized the first forestry academy. His students laid the first large green areas, thanks to which we still have such green squares as Elm tree Grove (Карагачевая Роща), Oak Park and Youth Park.

In 1938, when the Botanical Garden was created, its scientific staff began to carry out tremendous work on the acclimatization, adaptation and introduction of landscaping of different types of foreign flora.[1] This painstaking work continued even during the difficult war years. Thanks to great efforts of scientists and the municipal service itself, the city of Frunze was buried in verdure and worthily carried the status of a “garden-city”. The streets of the capital were considered as windows through which the whole city was ventilated.

Erkindik Boulevard (formerly Dzerzhinsky) Source: liveinternet.ru
Fetisov Nursery, Pishpek, 1886 liveinternet.ru

The last inventory of green spaces, which was carried out in 1989, showed that 35 m² of greenery was provided per one urban dweller, with a norm of 21 m² in common areas. Today, this figure has decreased by ten times: only 3.5 m² of greenery per person, and it cannot provide a person with complete safety from external factors. According to our estimates, if we summarize the entire area of ​​green areas, only seven percent of the city is covered with a crown of trees. For reference: earlier, according to feelings, the area of ​​green spaces was more than 60% in the entire capital. Bishkek was once considered as a cool city with a constant stream of air from the mountains. Now – it is very hot here, sharp temperature changes happen, a high concentration of dust and much more is taking place. There are more cars, open surfaces of the soil without trees – this is a source of dust, because soil not covered by plants is subject to wind erosion. Any blow of the breeze just raises these dust particles.

Air pollution has long exceeded the limits of the norms, especially in winter, when due to heating, namely burning low-quality materials (rubber, rags), as well as a large flow of vehicles, breathing becomes a dangerous thing for health.

There is another problematic factor: drinking water, which is chlorinated. As you know, chlorine is poison, and chlorination is a desperate measure. Pure artesian water enters the water network, and it is chlorinated due to the deterioration of the water network itself. Water reaches the end user in chlorinated form, so any risk of infection is prevented on its way.

How long have norms of environmental pollution been violated and how has this affected the environment in Bishkek?

The norms are violated from year to year, due to the constant increase in vehicles reaching us in serious decay and are already prohibited for use according to European standards. The mandatory technical inspection has recently been canceled, because of which it is not clear with what quality the engines the cars are driven, and dumping at the same time even more exhaust gases into the atmosphere. The municipality creates all conditions for these cars, by expanding roads while reducing green spaces, and not developing public transportation.

Every year, the air in the capital is becoming dirtier, the microclimate is getting worse, and the number of areas uncovered by plants is more and more. This year the city is ringing with dryness, despite the high information content about the restoration of irrigation networks. The media is also actively campaigning that the city is becoming more comfortable and cleaner. From an environmental point of view, Bishkek is becoming dirtier and dirtier – it is decorated, it is becoming prettier, but not healthier.

Bishkek lays the image of a sick child who is getting sick more and more. Instead of taking medicine and prescribing a regimen, food, we put on jewelry, and bows. From this, the child does not become healthier.

In addition to garbage in the streets and a large stream of cars, how else can the environment be polluted?

One of the types of pollution that receives a little attention is dust pollution. It appeared due to the following reasons:

  • Reduced vegetation in many parts of the city where soil erosion occurs and all dust rises into the air;
  • Absence of transport frequency regulation;
  • Cars leaving construction sites and delivering dirt around the city, which, according to standards, should be washed before leaving.
  • The private sector, which contributes to increased dust pollution through endless new buildings, as well as heating houses with low-quality fuel, despite the fact that it is possible to heat the house with clean electricity.

However, at the same time, conditions were not created in Bishkek in order to be heated by electricity, and this is by far the cleanest source of energy. People are forced to heat their homes with waste, including coal, which also produces toxic emissions.

The next type is light pollution. The city has its own natural complex, consisting of parks and squares. The worst pest damage to trees is due to the fact that there is no reproduction of birds and predatory insects, which can, due to eating, regulate their population. Lighted areas disrupt the circadian rhythm. On the one hand, light is a source of security, but on the other hand, light is not the best life condition for some birds and insects that cannot reproduce in the presence of light. It is necessary to observe the daily regimen in some green areas in order to facilitate the resumption of their population.

Noise pollution, which has a strong effect on the nervous system, and draining it. The noise in city is due to the absence of the shrubs and trees that can protect a person from its effects. Moreover, this affects not only people, but also other living organisms that cannot withstand a constant strong stream of noise pollution.

What are the current problems that require attention and immediate solutions?

People think that trees are – lungs of the city. To me, trees are – the liver of the city.

The great function of green spaces is not oxygen evolution at all, but the creation of a microclimate, temperature control, purification of the air from toxins, physical and chemical pollutants, that is, firstly ensuring favorable conditions and safety in the city. Technically, there is yet no optimal and ingenious solution against external pollutants than our trees. I think that in the summer the city will be safer if we introduce different irrigation systems:

  • sprinkling areas due to technical wells so that the soil can be saturated;
  • closed type – these are flow pipes;
  • open, aryk (irrigation canal) irrigation type. This method not only moisturizes the air, but also irrigates plants that begin to release intensively moisture, thereby regulating a comfortable microclimate in the capital.

Previously, Bishkek was famous for its practical system of irrigation canals and was considered as a city of fountains. Now they also need to be restored so that there are more open water surfaces that enhance the process of air humidification.

Trees protect us and are, as you say, the “liver” of the city, purifying the air. However, they also need protection. Could you tell us how external factors affect the green spaces in the city? How can we protect them?

We need a comprehensive approach to landscaping the city, which should first be thought out scientifically and environmentally, but not aesthetically. It is necessary to start with a well-built irrigation system in order to create and provide conditions for plants. Carry out comprehensive care measures: timely molding and sanitary trimming, ensuring a normal near-trunk circle to plants. Due to the asphalt filling of the territory where the trees are planted, over time, their root system begins to rot, as there is no root breathe, due to which, the trees fall. It is also necessary to develop a nursery to grow local species of seedlings, to store planting seeds, which will be specially selected for planting in the city. A seed bank, by the way, is in the Botanical Garden named after Gareev. In fact, this is a decision making issue. Are we developing the city for cars or for people?

Asphalted tree roots in Bishkek. Photo: Kloop.kg
Decorative structures for planting protection in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: obozrevatel.co

What are the ways to solve environmental problems? In addition, if shifts begin in the country, when the restoration of norms will be possible for harmless living in the capital?

In winter, to ensure safety, actions should be aimed at strengthening substations in the private sector at an individual level, for example: the use of solar panels.

As an integrated approach: this is transportation. I think minibuses are a disgrace to our capital. People should not be transported like animals. It is necessary to provide favorable public transport, since the residents of Bishkek are not car enthusiasts – they are forced to use cars because of bad transportation conditions.

It is important to develop walking, and cycling infrastructures. Bishkek is a small city, where anyone can safely move by riding a bicycle, an electric scooter, or by walk. With such minor measures, we can solve the problem of traffic jams and air pollution, but not by road expansion.

It is also necessary to introduce mechanisms for the protection and development of green spaces. The protection means – an increase in the compensation cost for the demolition of one tree because the trees in the cities are being sawed, were sawed and will be sawed in the future. Infrastructure development in the city is always connected with a detriment of green spaces. There is an easy and affordable mechanism for sawing trees, because they usually cost a penny and any real estate developer has the ability to cut trees with one click. The compensation cost of sawing a tree is from 5,000 to 7,000 KGS, and a seedling is 9,000 KGS. This suggests that the methodology for calculating the compensation value is incorrect and not valid. From an environmental point of view, one tree can be replaced only by planting as many as 210 seedlings in the volume of the crown, since the tree creates favorable conditions for living in the city with its entire immense crown and each leaf. Speaking of the minimum condition, the tree creates a shadow, and in order to maintain this shadow, 36 seedlings are needed. On average, at a price of one seedling of 9090 KGS, one full-fledged tree should cost almost 2 million KGS. At least five years is necessary for the seedlings to acquire at least some form of tree. Moreover, the tree becomes full-fledged only 20-30 years after planting and only with such a comprehensive landscaping that will be introduced in the city today, after 5 years at least we can fully live in a truly safe city.

The timing of acquiring a favorable living environment depends on when and what will be introduced. Pedestrian infrastructure can be restored in a year. With sufficient resources, it is also possible to introduce a private sector electrification system in a year.

What are your forecasts for the next five to ten years, given the current environmental situation?

Given the ecological situation in the city today, it will only get worse, since the global process of climate change, which leads to the melting of glaciers, will contribute to a shortage of drinking water. We must already begin to introduce water-saving technologies that will effectively use water.

In addition, if we use drinking water for irrigation in the private sector and micro-districts, which is now actively used in large volumes, due to the lack of access to irrigation canal water, we will only bring the global problem closer.

It must be remembered that drinking water is an artesian reservoir that does not renew.

The climate without trees will be harsh, arid: the temperature will keep rising and the amount of precipitation will keep decreasing. If sustainable, environmentally sound landscaping is not already being undertaken, then this will make it even more difficult in the future. If the current trend of inefficient spending of funds for landscaping continues (from an environmental point of view, funds are spent inefficiently), as a result we will create even worse problems than those that we have now. The soil in Bishkek is degrading, and the survival of seedlings will be more difficult every year. Those funds that are spent on flowerbeds and pots in the city – are the funds that we waste for nothing.

There is such a term “sustainable building”. We need to introduce exactly sustainable building, laying arrays to create a microclimate of the city. Through such construction, we will establish a safe living in the capital, and after 5 years, we will return to the status: “green city-garden”.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.  

[1] Foreign flora – not native, alien or adventitious plants

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