Fighting For Clean Air In Krakow

Article published on April 27, 2014
Article published on April 27, 2014

Krakow is the sec­ond largest city in Poland. It's one of the country's tourist centres, with charming churches, mu­se­ums, cafés and bars. But it also holds also the less flat­ter­ing title of one of the most pol­luted cities in Eu­rope. But thanks to a civil ini­tia­tive fight­ing air pol­lu­tion, the next gen­er­a­tion of Krakowians might be breath­ing bet­ter air.

Slowly climb­ing up Krakus Mound, one of the four hills over­look­ing Krakow, we try not to breath too deeply. De­spite the low tem­per­a­tures and a cloudy sky, many Krakowians de­cide to spend their Sat­ur­day morn­ing here, away from the city cen­tre crowded with tourists. A few jog­gers, brav­ing the cold in sleeve­less shirts and shorts are run­ning up the hill. My cafébabel col­leagues and I just want to see what pol­luted air looks like.

Poland’s sec­ond largest city is nes­tled in a val­ley. It is sur­rounded by hills and it is not blessed with much wind. These cli­matic con­di­tions do not allow pol­lu­tant par­ti­cles to dis­perse, mak­ing the city one of the most pol­luted in Eu­rope. My newly in­stalled phone app Smok-Smog mea­sur­ing the air qual­ity in Krakow, was show­ing that the pol­lu­tion level ex­ceeds the norm. Yet, from the top of a 200-and-some­thing metre high slope, the mist en­velop­ing the city did not look harm­ful.

“In the back of your mind, you al­ways know the air you're breath­ing is not good,” says Kamil, a stu­dent from Krakow. His mother, an opera singer, is con­stantly asked the same ques­tion by her for­eign coun­ter­parts — how do you man­age to sing here? “When they come to Krakow, al­ready after the sec­ond re­hearsal they feel as if their lung ca­pac­ity has di­min­ished.”

Air pol­lu­tion can se­ri­ously dam­age your health. “It can even pro­voke sui­cides, be­cause peo­ple get de­pressed,” says Ewa, point­ing her fin­ger at a graphic brochure lying on the table in front of us. It is in Pol­ish, but from the draw­ings I un­der­stand that air pol­lu­tion can be linked to var­i­ous dis­eases, from lung can­cer to heart prob­lems.

I meet Ewa Lu­tom­ska and Magda Ko­zlowska in a city cen­ter café called In de rev­o­lu­tion­ibus. The name is ap­pro­pri­ate, con­sid­er­ing Krakow Smog Alarm (Krakowski Alarm Smogowy), the human health ad­vo­cacy group ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing air qual­ity in the city to which they both be­long, rev­o­lu­tion­ized the fight for clean air in Krakow. Ewa started the move­ment in De­cem­ber 2012 with two friends, An­drzej and Ania. With Magda, and Jakub, who joined a bit later, the group now counts five mem­bers, all from very dif­fer­ent back­grounds. They don't de­fine them­selves as ecol­o­gists, just “or­di­nary cit­i­zens con­cerned about air pol­lu­tion”. Today, Ewa lets Magda do most of the talk­ing, only qui­etly in­ter­rupt­ing her some­times. They both seem frag­ile, look­ing half their age. But when they evoke their cause, their voices be­come stronger, pas­sion­ate.

The fight for clean air started on the in­ter­net in De­cem­ber 2012 with a Face­book page. An on­line pe­ti­tion soon fol­lowed, and the first clean air march or­ga­nized at the be­gin­ning of 2013 gath­ered some 300 Krakowians wear­ing gas masks. “At that mo­ment the air qual­ity pro­gram was de­bated on a na­tional level. A pro­gram for Krakow rec­om­mended a ban on solid fuels, but it hasn't been voted in.” Ewa in­di­cates the table of brochures. Col­or­ful graph­ics show that the ma­jor­ity of Krakow’s win­ter air pol­lu­tion comes from coal-pow­ered do­mes­tic stoves, and just a minor part from traf­fic and in­dus­try. Be­sides coal, peo­ple some­times burn garbage in their stoves, al­though doing so is for­bid­den. Bot­tles, plas­tic or “even nap­pies,” adds Ewa.

a fu­neral march for clean air

The type of pol­lu­tion that mat­ters is PM10. Ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, the ac­cept­able con­cen­tra­tion is 20 μg/m3. Krakow air qual­ity mon­i­tor­ing sta­tions reg­u­larly mea­sure around 60 μg/m. Dur­ing the win­ter which is stove burn­ing sea­son, tem­per­a­tures drop to -30 de­grees Cel­sius, and air pol­lu­tion ex­ceeds ac­cept­able lev­els. "Last win­ter PM10 was around 300μg/m3,” Magda re­calls.

Their ini­tia­tive would have never have been suc­cess­ful if Krakow’s pop­u­la­tion weren't fed up with pol­luted air, Magda em­pha­sizes. “We gave them a frame within which they acted,” she says. Some res­i­dents par­tic­i­pated in a spam­ming pro­ject. “Over 2500 emails were sent to the local au­thor­i­ties in one night,” Magda evokes with a smile. In No­vem­ber 2013, al­most 2000 Krakowians took to the streets to protest “in a fu­neral march for clean air. Peo­ple wore black, car­ry­ing a cof­fin,” they re­call. A month later, “the ban on res­i­den­tial solid fuel burn­ing was voted in.

Time for change

Later that day, I took the 502 bus to Nowa Huta, once a model of the ideal So­viet city, today Krakow’s east­ern most neigh­bor­hood. In a city hall, nes­tled be­tween con­crete res­i­den­tial hous­ing blocks, the local au­thor­i­ties opened an in­for­ma­tion point for all ques­tions on heat­ing ap­pli­ance re­place­ment. Even though no­body was queu­ing in front of her of­fice when I ar­rived, Ewa Ol­szowska, di­rec­tor of the de­part­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, as­sured me that “they do get a lot of calls. Peo­ple are in­ter­ested mostly in if and how they can get a re­fund for chang­ing their heat­ing.”

The au­thor­i­ties mo­bi­lized re­gional and na­tional struc­tural funds for ecol­ogy to as­sure al­most 100% sub­si­dies for the re­place­ment of the coal stoves, as well as ad­di­tional sub­si­dies for en­ergy bills for the poor­est house­holds. All the coal stoves have to be changed be­fore 1 Sep­tem­ber 2018 when the ban comes into full force. If not? “Solid fuel users will be fined and given an ad­di­tional dead­line to change their heat­ing sys­tem.” But there is more to the fight than that. Ewa Ol­szowska un­folds a city map on her desk. Red ar­rows show the out­line of the next big pro­ject; “redi­rect­ing the traf­fic to high­ways; pro­mot­ing pub­lic trans­porta­tion and park­ing out­side of the city cen­ter; reg­u­lat­ing the traf­fic lights in order to as­sure an undis­turbed flow of traf­fic; all of that to keep car emis­sions out­side the city,” she says.

Back in the café Rev­o­lu­tion­ibus, Ewa and Magda tell me, “Our fight isn’t over yet!” Happy with what they have achieved so far, they plan to keep an eye on the way the au­thor­i­ties im­ple­ment new mea­sures, but also to raise aware­ness of the pol­lu­tion prob­lem in other Pol­ish re­gions. And why not in other coun­tries too? “Krakow Smog Alert has be­come a sort of a brand,” they ex­plain laugh­ing, “so why not to ex­port it?”