This is the story of the Science for Change Kosovo (SfCK) project, a citizen science project originally started by the UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo in 2014, and which has empowered youngsters of Prishtina, Drenas, and Plementin for tackling the problem of air pollution in Kosovo. In late 2015, the Prosperity Initiative in Kosovo (PIKS) NGO was funded by the Supporting Implementation of Youth Advocacy and Skill Building Activities of the UNICEF in Kosovo Program to carry out the 2.0 stage of this project.  

The project enables youth across Kosovo to perform their own scientific work to render visible the composition of the air we breathe and in turn create coalitions of stakeholders to bring about the needed change. Rron Kelmendi, Project Coordinator at PIKS, says that we face a serious problem of air pollution. “Every day I get to walk in the streets of my hometown : going to work, meeting friends, etc. While doing so, I hardly get a chance to take a deep breath; one is simply unable due to the heavy air polluted by various sources attacking our air in different harmful ways. We tend to be concerned about the visible traces of this pollution : the emissions from cars, emissions from power plants, which are easily recognizable in our beloved city Prishtina. But, the problem is magnified by the harmful substances which our eyes can’t see. Thus, this problem we face, ironically produces slow violence. You will not feel the pain right away, but eventually a disease will notify its arrival. Unfortunately, the air we breathe is something we all take for granted. Yet, in reality, many of our people get sick, we witness premature deaths, hundreds of hospital admissions, thousands of emergency visits; to recover from conditions such as chronic bronchitis, skin cancer, and various allergies which ultimately sum up to hundreds of millions of euros spent for medical bills in the past decade!  The solution to this vicious cycle, I believe, is what we have done with the citizen science initiative : collect data, analyze it and drive change. Citizen Science provided a platform that enables, especially us youngsters, to gather in a movement specialized in tackling this environmental problem. That is, providing us with the means and tools to research and monitor air pollution, but also to share our knowledge and educate younger generations through non-formal environmental education. This youth driven process culminates by having the gathered information published for public scrutiny and thus contributing to the generation of critical discourses on the problem and coalescing with many entities all with the purpose of serving for a difference in our community. Our by youth for youth non-profit, implementing this project, together with our partners, started with “tens” and build up to “hundreds” of citizen science volunteers. And, I am sure it will be subject to constant growth, as we already see that we have unleashed a ripple effect in our society. We need to act now decisively! Not on “mondays” and not on the first day of the “month”, not merely for Earth Day or any other international day devoted to the environment. Every day should be a day to combat air pollution and other forms of environmental pollutions in our midst.  

Atilla Rexha, Social Media Officer at PIKS, believes that as a youthful organization it is our prime responsibility to stand-up against what is going to affect our future directly, and we do not merely owe it to ourselves but most importantly for future generations as well. “Our involvement in Citizen Science Kosovo sets the best  example of how we manage to unite enthusiastic youngsters and utilize their skills and passion to address critical problems we face in our country. As our new country faces all sorts of environmental pollutants that threaten the wellbeing of thousands, our citizen science initiative felt more as an urgent duty than just a project we are working with. With that in mind, this sense of duty necessitated countless hours monitoring the air in all sorts of critical areas such as in Prishtina, Obiliq, Plementin, and many other cities around Kosovo. Beyond that, we are also going into schools and teaching kids about these problems and how they need to be more aware early on about what is affecting their wellbeing, while through our campaigns we want people to find out about the situation and understand that we need to do something about it if we want change for the better. Today we know, the data that we have gathered during this period, clearly displays that the air pollution in Kosovo is at concerning levels. Thus in order to display and inform a larger circle of citizens and youngsters about the current situation, but also to send out a message that uniting for action can bring about small but important changes towards the right direction, we organized in collaboration with our partners the first ever, Science for Change Festival during Earth Day 2016. We invited experts to share their wisdom and educate us, but we also planted 30 trees in the city centre. I believe these are the small steps worth replicating on much larger basis. I am confident our society is growing aware day by day, the question remains though: “Will this youth initiative be met with support from higher instances?”.

Liridona Osmanaj, Member at PIKS,  believes that in the priority list of problems to tackle, we should not leave climate issues at the bottom of it. Especially, in the Kosovo context, we need to understand that the clock is ticking and need to take action towards issues such as air pollution before the effects to the public health and environment, among other spheres, becomes too detrimental and irreversible. “The citizen science initiative is remarkable in the sense that it fosters the direct involvement of youth in field work dealing with monitoring of air pollution, and the non-formal education aspect; help guide youth, the decision makers of tomorrow, on how to create and maintain a world where there’s a quality of life and quality of environment and the importance of this balance. Especially important for me is that the non-formal education component of the project in primary schools, facilitated inter-generational knowledge – helping spark creative environmental engagement and awareness amongst younger generations; contributing to fill in the lack of such knowledge in the traditional educational system. Through such initiatives, we are giving Kosovo youth the opportunity to shape the future they want, that is a more sustainable future, with their own hands; playing their quintessential role in creating a more healthy environment at home but also adding their part in the global climate action. “

Riga Demiri, Campaign & Volunteer Officer for the project, is tremendously happy to have had the chance to collaborate with what she calls an amazing group of youth peers willing to give it all in the path towards cleaner air & a more sustainable environment in Kosova. “I was amazed by their dedication, hard work, strong sense of duty, emancipation & belief in human values. Their contribution was priceless, and I feel lucky to have met each and everyone of them. These youth peers showed me that no matter the challenges we face everyday, coming together will have a major impact in our society, and way beyond that as well. Seeing is believing. People react to the dangers they see; it’s a basic truth of the human condition. This old adage is what would make an Invisible Killer the most dangerous threat the human race is facing to date. The Invisible Killer is Air Pollution, and Kosovo is one of the more heavily polluted young countries in the world. Kosovo has a very young population, which is promising in its potential to shape a better future not only for the country itself but for the world also, which is also the main motivation behind our project, to avoid seeing the future being covered by a cloud of smog. The problems it causes are beyond counting, ranging from a less-healthy population, to a less fertile land, polluted water sources, etc. There is absolutely no facet of society that isn’t impacted by this problem. It’s about survival after all, and as we all know, air is pretty important in that regard. Solutions to the problems are plenty, but in order to realize such a monstrous task, especially in the wake of an Invisible Enemy, one needs to use methods of making said enemy visible. This is where the concerned group of youngsters, Prosperity Initiative in Kosovo – PIKS came in. Science for Change has aimed to sensitize the people of Kosovo through science and social cohesion about the environmental threat it is facing, by employing scientific social activism schemes, whereby individuals all over the territory can independently sample data to be analyzed and used as a basis for further actions. The work was made possible by the tireless work of volunteers, people who are conscious about the problems we are facing, people who understand that we did not inherit this planet from our forefathers, we are merely borrowing it from future generations, as such our aim should be to leave it a better place than we found it initially. The only way we can do this is together, through science. Change through Science, Science through Change.

Taulant Qerkini, Creative Director at PIKS, says that as a kid born in the 90s, raised and having lived in Prishtina for most of his life, the problem of air pollution is a serious matter people in the capitol should not take lightly. “Through the years, Prishtina got bigger, and incredibly more dense; although many believed we will see the expansion of the little green areas, but we have not. Actually, it seems like we have seen them shrink even more. The capital city, a concrete jungle with growing concrete borders day-by-day, makes it seem as if all the people of Kosovo live here, all the cars are driven here; air and sky getting more and more gloomy from the smog. So the question lingers : what air quality do we have? I was not aware for far too long, and it seemed no one knew, and then people get sick and many have problems, yet people are told air quality is OK. But is it really? I wanted to know! Thus we became part of this initiative to find out, and we did. The result : we should be worried. We are. And now, it’s time to do something about it.

 

Epilogue

Often it is said that the battle for sustainability will either be won or lost. What better approach could there be when the most affected stand up and say no to the old, to the unfair and unacceptable, no to the unsustainable! Youth are inheriting severe environmental problems from older generations, thus it is essential we secure a place for them in the decision-making tables where these problems are tackled and important decisions shaping the future are made. We at PIKS are confident that through this initiative we have made that known. Whether the calls of youngsters are going to be heard, or will be met with deaf ears from the ones turning blind eyes to the polluting dynamo’s  will remain to be seen. One thing is for sure though, the youth movement for a cleaner air and healthier environment is vivid, overturning the system may not be an option, however incremental change, instigated by youngsters, is being enacted.

 

This blogpost was curated by Lander Islami, Co-Founder and Team Leader at PIKS NGO. Any views, statements found in this blogpost are not to be cited or reproduced without the permission of the authors.