This June a report on the health of the peoples of the world was released by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The report contained a vast amount of data linked to mortality rates, obesity and number of health staff in each country.
In terms of deaths linked to air pollution, Georgia topped the list with 292 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants pro annum. That equals 11,500 deaths in Georgia solely because of air pollution. Every year. Armenia, Russia and Azerbaijan have annual numbers of 125, 110 and 68 per 100,000 inhabitants respectively. The release of the report caused a minor demonstration in Tbilisi calling for cleaner air, and spokesmen from the demonstrators as well as the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MOEP) have had a busy time giving interviews on a subject that is rarely discussed publically: The quality of air in Georgia and how it affects the lives of the citizens.
The following interview was conducted on 13 July 2016 with Noe Megrelishvili from MOEP who is chief specialist in ambient air protection.
Do you acknowledge the WHO numbers which rank Georgia as the country with most deaths worldwide linked to air pollution, when taking the size of the population into account?
No, we do not. The numbers in the report are based on data from 2004, which suggests that 46 percent of the population depends on solid fuel (e.g. wood and coal) in their homes. That is no longer the case.
Can you then provide any newer data?
The most recent numbers suggest that Georgia has 92 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants due to air pollution and not 292. We understand that there is a problem with poor air, but these numbers you mention are exaggerated. Our neighbouring countries have been granted the use of newer data, so the report is not fair in that aspect.
How do you envisage a change from the current situation to a greener Georgia?
The transport sector is the main air polluter. We have established some goals which will enable us to reduce emissions from this sector. They are: Mandatory checks for all vehicles which at the moment only apply to trucks and buses; strengthening public transport systems; and making the use of renewable energy more attractive. Furthermore, we are bringing the quality of fuel in Georgia in line with European Union (EU) regulations. It is also our hope that we can promote the sales of environmentally friendly cars by making them cheaper, but this has to be coordinated with other agencies.
Making car inspections mandatory was already mentioned in a paper by the MOEP in 2012, and then postponed to 2013. How are these inspections coming along?
They are now mentioned in our Association Agreement with the EU. The procedure with car inspections will be in force from the end of 2017. We then intend to strengthen the enforcement of this scheme as it is vaguely enforced now with fines as low as 10 GEL for failing to pass an inspection. However, we do not plan to confiscate sub-standard vehicles: only monetary penalties are on the table.
While these goals should increase the air quality they only work in the long term. Does the ministry have any short-term goals?
First, we need to understand the causes of the pollution and the composition of the pollution itself. The past years we have expanded our use of air monitoring stations across the country so as to have more data on the subject. This information is already publically accessible through the internet and, from late 2016, automatic stations will provide data directly to the webpages.
Air pollution has previously not been a high priority for the government, but the topic is now receiving more and more focus from the public and politicians alike. For instance, WHO personnel have briefed the cabinet on the effects of air pollution. When it comes to the upcoming car inspections, we will have campaigns to raise awareness of why these checks are being implemented. They are not only linked to the environment, but also the road safety of the car with a check of “the whole package”. This autumn will also see a new set of standards to different fuel quality from MOEP.
One of the long-term goals of the Ministry is to have cleaner air throughout the country. How clean?
We aim for as few deaths as possible. The release of the WHO report and the growing attention to the issue will presumably lead to the environment being discussed more at this year’s election than it has been in previous elections. Whoever wins this election one can only hope that the trust from the voters and the thrust coming from being newly appointed will be used to keep up steam in order to ensure that the recent progress on the environmental front continues.