The perils of air pollution in North Macedonia

The rate of premature deaths in North Macedonia is higher than in most European Union states.

North Macedonia, located in the centre of the Balkan peninsula, has more than two million inhabitants.

It is one of the countries most affected by air pollution; the rate of premature deaths is higher than in most European Union states.

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers air pollution a “public health emergency” related to 8.8 million premature deaths each year. It is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe.

Leon and Dani are 12 and from the Roma community. When they leave school, they collect iron from landfills to resell. They give the money to their parents. They live in Suto Orizari - better know as Shutka, which means trash - on the outskirts of Skopje. Eighty percent of Suto Orizari’s population is Roma. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
Leon and Dani are 12 and from the Roma community. When they leave school, they collect iron from landfills to resell. They give the money to their parents. They live in Suto Orizari – better know as Shutka, which means trash – on the outskirts of Skopje. Eighty percent of Suto Orizari’s population is Roma. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]

North Macedonia’s air pollution can be attributed to emissions from the former socialist Yugoslav-era industries, loosely regulated vehicles, the burning of outdoor waste and domestic heating.

Air pollution can cause, in addition to health problems, psychological effects such as depression.

Winter’s low temperatures make the situation worse, because of the rise in demand for heating.

The mayor of Skopje, Petre Shilegov, confirmed that around 60,000 households use low-quality wood and coal for heating, according to local news agency Makfax.

Some burn textiles, plastics and waste to heat their homes, because of poor gas supplies and the high cost of electricity.

The average income is about 260 euros per month, and energy poverty plagues Skopje.

Another factor contributing to air pollution is North Macedonia’s natural position: much of the country is located in a valley surrounded by mountains that trap the fog.

Lufti Shaziu, 64, sits in his house on the outskirts of Skopje. He worked 36 years in the Ohis factory, which operated five large facilities manufacturing various cleaning products, insecticides, pesticides, and cosmetics that were sold across the Balkans. Lufti did not know the level of toxicity present, but he remembers the dust coming out of the chimneys and the dead birds on the rooftops. Over the years, his colleagues have had serious health problems, and many have died. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
On weekends, inhabitants of Skopje escape from the pollution to Mount Vodno, a popular destination for hiking and day trips, known locally as the city’s “green lungs” for its clean and cold air. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
Naza, 51, has nine children and supports herself by begging on the streets. During the winter in North Macedonia, poor people are used to burning low-quality wood, textiles, plastics and waste to heat their homes due to the lack of a reliable gas supply and the high cost of electricity. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
This farmer, seen harvesting cauliflowers in his field near the REK coal power plant, blames air pollution on the factories in neighbouring Greece. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
Tyres are ready to be burned on the hills of Kosturino, near Strumica. Local workers say they prefer to burn tyres because they are cheap – 100 euros ($120) for a loaded truck’s worth. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
Former Ohis workers protest in the centre of the capital, asking for compensation for the serious damage they have suffered to their health. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
This skyscraper, being built by a Turkish company, offers apartments that are 60 to 80 square metres in size and that are sold for 1,300 euros ($1,565) per square metre. Many apartments are still unsold. According to local activists, the construction of skyscrapers blocks the circulation of air and increases pollution. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
An employee of the municipality of Tetovo burns garbage inside the Muslim cemetery near the city centre. Burning waste is a common practice. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
Plastic collection centres are where citizens, especially members of the Roma community, sell the plastic they collect on the streets of the city. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
Ibraim, 70, burns plastic waste to keep warm in the shack where he lives with his wife. He lives by begging in the city. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
Inhabitants of Skopje return home in the evening, taking the last ride on the cable car from popular hiking destination Mount Vodno. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
Kimel, 63, portrayed in her room. She lives by begging in the city. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]
Abas, 36, in a landfill in Shutka. He once lived in Italy, where he worked as a butcher. [Stefano Morelli/Al Jazeera]

Every year, 2,574 people die prematurely as a direct result of air pollution, according to the EU Research Result website.

The WHO Ambient Air Pollution Database for 2018 ranks the capital city of Skopje, with about 600,000 inhabitants, as Europe’s most polluted capital.

By : Stefano Morelli – AL JAZEERA

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