Interview: “As a scientist, my mission is to raise public awareness and contribute to informed decision-making”

Dr. Aiymgul Kerimray is an environmentalist and a senior researcher at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. On the occasion of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, UN Women spoke to Kerimray about her research on energy poverty and air quality in urban areas and its gendered impacts.

Aimgul Kerimray.  Photo: Yuliya Goryuchkina.
Dr. Aiymgul Kerimray, environmentalist and researcher. Photo: Yuliya Goryuchkina.

What is your mission?

Last year, I focused my work on energy poverty and air quality in urban areas. As a scientist, my mission is to raise public awareness and contribute to informed decision-making by making and presenting research. Every time we bring our research to the public, we not only provide insight and data to understand and analyse existing problems, but we also suggest policy recommendations to address those challenges. 

I am also dedicated to raising awareness among experts, civil society, opinion leaders and decision-makes. With my dear colleague, Dr. Nassiba Baimatova, we launched the Telegram Channel “Air Quality Science”, where we share our comments, analysis and publish updates from international peer-reviewed research papers on air quality and climate change. We provide lessons learned from other countries’ experiences along the path to cleaner air. We use mostly peer-reviewed studies because we want to contribute to the dissemination of scientifically proven knowledge. We want to popularize environmental science.

What are the costs of air pollution?

There is a perception in society that green technologies are expensive and that we cannot afford them. This is only partially true. We need to estimate the full damage of air pollution as well and compare the full costs and benefits. It has been scientifically proven that chronic exposure to fine particulate matter is associated with the risk of premature death from lung cancer, respiratory disease, coronary heart disease, etc. Polluted air, in addition to its negative impact on lung function, affects the neurological development of children and increases the risk of dementia in the elderly. 

A 2015 study by WHO and OECD, based on 2010 data, found that polluted air in Kazakhstan leads to 10,064 premature deaths per year. Mortality due to indoor air pollution in Kazakhstan is estimated at 5,763 per year. The economic cost of both indoor and outdoor air pollution in Kazakhstan has been estimated at USD 29.2 billion per year or 9.3 per cent of GDP (based on 2010 data). Thus, we should conduct awareness-raising campaigns to inform people of the negative impacts of air pollution on mortality and morbidity. Different studies across the world demonstrate how air pollution, including household air pollution e.g. stove cooking, might negatively affect pregnant women, cause adverse birth outcomes, and become a factor provoking breast cancer, blood and heart diseases. We definitely need such research to get conducted in Kazakhstan too.

How does fuel poverty affect women in Kazakhstan?

In our study in Kazakhstan, we found that energy poverty is more prevalent in rural areas, in regions without access to gas pipeline networks. I believe it is necessary to run future studies to assess how energy poverty affects different population groups, including womenbecause women typically spend more time at home they likely suffer the most from indoor air pollution, due to the use of coal in stoves. Women need to be better informed about cleaner fuel options and be aware of the negative impact of dirty fuels on their health and on the health of their children.  Transition to cleaner fuels empowers women as it reduces cooking time and has health benefits, and so understanding gendered issues of cooking and heating fuel choices will uncover the benefits of the transition to clean fuel use. 

To reduce energy poverty, there is a need for government action, such as further expansion of the gas pipeline network, subsidization of connections to gas pipelines or gas boiler purchases for low-income and vulnerable households, the Coal Stove Replacement Programme in remote regions, energy efficiency intervention programmes for households, strict compliance with building insulation standards, awareness-raising campaigns for cleaner fuels, a gradual ban on household coal use in cities, etc. 

How can we increase the number of women in STEM?  

In my opinion, better conditions should be created for working mothers. For example, there should be kid-friendly offices for working parents. There are many situations when mothers are not able to work because they cannot afford nannies. Especially in science in Kazakhstan, the salaries are very low. Also, we should normalize in our societies that housework can also be done by men. In Central Asia, this is uncommon. Under such conditions, of course, it is quite challenging for women to become successful in STEM. Also, possibly governments should set requirements for a minimum share of women in leading positions in STEM. 

What inspires you in your work?

I often receive emails from students and researchers across the globe with questions about my research articles. I become aware that many people read my studies and they use our results in their studies. This inspires me a lot and makes me feel that my work is important and valuable.