During the last month in particular I have noticed that it is becoming extremely difficult to breathe when walking downtown, particularly along Abovyan and Tumanyan Streets. Lately I have actually been feeling a bit strange when strolling around there and being hit by the fumes, as that area is where I live as well as work. Perhaps the reason why it is especially hard to breathe there may have something to do with the insane traffic that has developed as a result of the never-ending construction. I should mention that there are thousands more cars on the road now than this time last year. An estimated 16,500 vehicles entered Armenia in 2005; that number has supposedly increased significantly this year, and will undoubtedly go up in 2007. Apparently, so far 17,000 cars have already been imported in 2006, a 30 percent increase from 2005. These numbers only represent cars that are actually accounted for, as some still manage to pass by customs somehow.
I suppose the main ways to curb further pollution would be to temporarily suspend all vehicle imports, impose fines on drivers whose cars have faulty emissions—which arguably is nearly always the case with these cars, especially the Russian ones, and to give incentive, perhaps in the form of waiving the excise tax on vehicles for one year, for drivers to install natural gas fuel systems in their cars. But since most members of the Armenian government really don’t care about any issues affecting the public at-large because they are too preoccupied with making money for themselves, taking advantage of their influential positions and immunity from prosecution, we can’t expect any form of legislation anytime soon to make that change occur. Unless of course, people start complaining and protesting in substantially large numbers to put pressure on the government to act, but we know that is not going to happen either in the near future the way the “vochinch” mentality has been spreading like a life-threatening epidemic. The strange thing is the Yerevan municipality collects a “clean air” tax every year from people renewing their vehicle registration and safety inspection. I’d love to know where that money goes.
For vehicles to run on natural gas is essential for a city as small as Armenia. It has already been proven that vehicles with natural gas systems emit relatively clean emissions compared with those from gasoline or diesel fuels. You can also drive at least twice the distance on a full tank of natural gas than with gasoline. Some buses started running on natural gas in Boston for instance over five years ago. That is also the case with public transport in Armenia, as most if not all the minibuses weaving through Yerevan and even older Soviet-era jalopies seem to run on natural gas. Buses leaving the capital for the regions also run on this newer, progressive form of energy, which is commendable. But I would argue that just from my observations, the majority of the cars on the road, especially the imports of used crappy European Opels and formerly owned (a.k.a., stolen) patched-up from collision Mercedes-Benz or BMWs racing through the streets, run on gasoline. I’ve found that the quality of the fuel varies, depending on where you fill up. I usually stick to “Premium” grade gasoline, since you never know what you’re going to get with “Regular,” especially at independent, mom-and-pop fuel stations—I have heard from one person that diesel fuel is sometimes combined with it at some places. Speaking of diesel fuel, I am realizing now how dirty it is here. Trucks nearly always emit thick black, choking smoke, especially when climbing hills, which tells you that the exhaust systems on such vehicles are unquestionably faulty if not non-existent. Another dead giveaway to the pollution is the smog hovering over Central Yerevan, especially noticeable when climbing Azatutian Street towards Victory Park.
I am hoping that government officials—perhaps after hearing remarks from the European Union or whomever wants to formally complain—will put a cap on the amount of cars being imported, because it really seems as though there are quite enough on the road. I mean, you don’t really need to drive through Central Yerevan, since you can walk from one end to the other in less than 15 minutes, or else hop on a minibus to get across town in five. Perhaps when the Russian government makes a strong statement regarding increasing pollution in Yerevan Armenians will listen. But since Armenia is now virtually dependent on Russia for all natural gas imports, particularly when the latter finally takes control of the Armenia-Iran pipeline which is still under construction, I would not expect anyone complaining, especially when there is more potential than ever to make cash. I think the most we can expect are tax breaks to people who want to use natural gas instead of gasoline to fuel their cars as a step to curb more pollution, or else allowing discounts on all gas tank sales. It would not be a bad idea at all, actually.