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Activists Place Surgical Masks on Tbilisi Statues to Highlight the City’s Poor Air Quality

By Gvantsa Gabekhadze
Thursday, November 30
(TBILISI)—Residents of the Georgian capital Tbilisi awoke Tuesday to find several of the city’s public statues wearing white surgical masks in what appears to have been a demonstration by local environmental activists to bring attention to the increasingly hazardous air quality in the city.

City officials, including Deputy Mayor Irakli Khmaladze, quickly ordered the removal of the masks and condemned the protest as an “unsanctioned prank” by “people who show no respect for the city’s monuments”.

Low quality fuel, a major spike in car ownership and poor public transport have all contributed to Tbilisi’s unhealthy air quality in recent years. The public’s unfettered access to older diesel cars with low or non-existent emission standards has further compounded the problem, as has a rash of unregulated major construction projects that sharply contribute to the amount of dust that locals are forced to inhale on a daily basis.

In a 2016 report, the International Energy Agency found that Georgia has one of the highest death rates from illnesses caused by air pollution.

Local environmentalist Nino Chkhobadze says that the air quality in Tbilisi is far worse than what is reported by the city and federal governments.

Georgia’s environment ministry claims air pollution in Tbilisi remains low, according to their measurements, with high concentrations of dust found only along the city’s central Tsereteli Avenue.

Environmentalists, civil activists and NGOs have continually criticized the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) government for failing to enforce existing laws on the mandatory checks of cars to verify that they meet European emission standards.

The GD has repeatedly backed down from forcing mandatory checks of cars in the fear that a major crackdown on vehicles that fail to meet environmental standards will result in their being impounded, angering potential voters.

The government now says that mandatory checks will be introduced beginning next year.

According to data from 2016, 400,000 cars are registered in Tbilisi, a city with a population of only 1.2 million people.