Major New Survey of Household Heating Identifies Some Key Causes of Skopje’s Soaring Levels of Pollution

Jan 17, 2018

“You can smell and taste the pollution the moment you walk out of the door,” says mother of three, Jasminka Markovska. “Even on a clear day there’s this poisonous tang in the air. You know it’s damaging your health and your children’s health but you feel helpless to do anything about it. Every winter it just gets worse. Some people say it’s the cars. Some say it’s from illegal industry. Others say it’s the burning of rubbish for heating… Nobody seems to know the cause for sure.”

Pollution levels in the country’s biggest towns and cities have been breaking records for all the wrong reasons over recent years. The capital, Skopje, now has the unenviable claim to be one of the most polluted cities in the whole of Europe, with potentially fatal PM10 particles measured at over 14 times the level considered acceptable by health experts.

This alarming and depressing issue has now taken over the weather as a top topic of conversation among the city’s residents. But however much citizens complain and even protest, the pollution seems only to get worse, with appalling consequences for public health – especially amongst the most vulnerable groups in the population.

A major aggravating factor in this situation has been lack of reliable data on some of the key causes of pollution. Many Skopje residents, like Nazife Bushi, are still not sure who or what to believe. “You hear all these different explanations, with everyone blaming someone else. It’s confusing.” Numerous studies have been undertaken to identify the roles of different sectors in contributing to pollution, but until recently some significant factors have not been subject to systematic investigation.

One of these under-investigated factors – until recently – is household heating, which experts say accounts for 32% of Skopje’s air pollution.

To address this lack of data on heating, UNDP partnered with the Ministry of Environment and the City of Skopje to produce a comprehensive behavioural survey of how people in Skopje heat their homes – the first of its kind to be carried out on such a scale in this country. Conducted in January 2017, the survey covered 5,044 households in all 17 urban and rural municipalities that are considered part of the Skopje conurbation. The results have just been published on a highly user-friendly and interactive website at https://skopjesezagreva.mk/home-heating-in-skopje/.

Amongst the key findings of the survey are the following statistics:

·         85% of households in rural areas of Skopje, and 35% in the central urban areas, heat their houses with wood-burning devices, most of which are not only inefficient but highly polluting.

·         One-third of respondents admitted that they (or their neighbors) were using harmful substances scavenged from construction waste or nearby garbage bins for heating. In both rural and urban municipalities that lack central heating, many residents burn wood scraps, plastic waste and even rubber in decades-old stoves. This is a major cause of both indoor and outdoor pollution and poses a high risk of pneumonia and other respiratory ailments.

·         The great majority of respondents said they would prefer to use central heating. But central heating is only available in the urbanised parts of Skopje, and many there find the price too high.

  • Only 1% of the respondents base their heating decisions on the level of pollution generated by different heating systems. Instead, 40% stated that their choice of heating system is based on the monthly heating bill. Nonetheless, most said they would choose the least polluting option if the price differences were not so great.

·         There is little awareness of alternative, less polluting methods of heating, especially about low-cost and low-polluting heat pumps.

·         As many as 92% of households lack proper insulation, especially for roofs and windows.

·         Over 317,000 tons of wood are burnt in Skopje for heating each year – the equivalent of burning every tree on Mount Vodno, the majestic mountain that towers over the capital city.  

These findings will serve not only to inform policymaking but also to raise public awareness and help change people’s behaviour.

The survey was conducted by professional researchers using an innovative mobile app called Placeformer, which enables the gathering of geotagged and visually appealing information that can be easily used for designing policies and measures at national, local and micro level.

The data from the survey have generated enormous public interest, and the UNDP office in Skopje is now working with national partners at all levels to build an integrated approach that incorporates behavioural science in designing cost-effective solutions to reduce the pollution caused by heating.

 

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