Kazakhstan: Smog Envelopes a Freezing Capital

A screengrab from 2006 horror film The Silent Hill, which Astana residents have likened to their city.

For many a year, strong and chilly winds have been the greatest source of misery for residents of the capital of Kazakhstan.

In the last few days, however, it is the lack of air movement and the appearance of a heavy shroud of smog that is scourging Astana.

On December 5, the Kazgidromet meteorological service reported that wind speeds had dropped to nought. In an apparently linked development, weather service officials noted that presence of pollutants recorded in the city’s air had exceeded permissible levels over the weekend.

Astana residents have taken to the internet to grumble about the dirty air and a lingering smell of burning. Pictures of hazy locations in the city have been posted on social media sites and jokingly labeled "Welcome to Silent Hill,” a reference to a 2006 horror film (and prior video game) in which sooty fog features prominently. Against all odds, the people of Astana are praying for the return of the wind.

The appearance of smog has sparked a sudden surge in ecological awareness among Astana residents. Most are pinning the blame for the situation on the owners of the homes that take up entire neighborhoods of the city and that are heated by coal-fired stoves. Others are pointing the finger at the thermal power stations supplying central heating and electricity to the city.

This is not the first time Astana has been struck by smog. Similar event occurred in October and at the start of this year. At that those times too, weather officials described the phenomenon as the result of harmful emissions and a lack of wind.

Astana has typically tried to make a virtue of its usually windy conditions, claiming that it guarantees the city fresh conditions distinct from those in the former capital, Almaty, where smog is also a commonplace feature. That boast rings hollow when the smog descends, however. The failure to predict and plan for the consequences of rampant pollution from homes and cars is a particularly regrettable oversight for a city built almost entirely from scratch in the last two decades.