The relative darkness by night is one of the first things you notice when arriving in the capital of Moldova. In the rural areas, functioning street illumination is even less well-developed. Although efforts have been made in recent years, many new installations do not last long. Behind the veil of darkness, the problems are not just technical.
A few streets away from the centre, night-time Chișinău feels like the countryside. The streets are left to high old trees and a sprawling darkness that seems to bow like the branches covering it. Above is the sky with stars stuck in it like pins. In the alleys with the tightly-aligned plane trees, maples and lindens plunged into darkness, you feel like you are striding through an immense park where the low-rise – sometimes more Romanian, sometimes more Russian-style tinted facades – seem like no more than summer houses behind the leaves. Of the people, you can only see the scissor movement of black legs and sometimes a jumping black briefcase like in a film noir. Only sometimes do the fairy lights of restaurants or bars create a sudden bundle of light. Otherwise, the streets are lit only by sporadic street lamps trickling honey-coloured light. In the first metres behind the crossroads, the pedestrians turn into black silhouettes melting into the lingering darkness.
Even as you approach the very centre of town, things do not change much. Only the main artery, Stephan the Great Boulevard, crosses the darkness like a belt of citrus yellow, mint green, red and white shimmering vitrines and letters. The names of McDonalds, Orange and Samsung shine brightly here as everywhere else. The government buildings, such as the brutalist architecturale Government House, are also enveloped in a certain halo, but the cathedral park just opposite is a generous refuge for the darkness. Lamps are so sparse that they only glimmer through the trees like ghost lights, together with some green, turquoise and red light shreds shining through from the boulevard. If you walk a few hundred metres further, the streets are plunged into shadow again.
“I always finish work at this hour and go straight to the bus stop”, says a middle-aged woman waiting by a timetable on the side of the street. “The darkness, well, I guess we have got used to it, but I know it should be brighter”. A young woman on her way to the bar laughs about the question. “Yes it is the first thing you notice when you get here from abroad”, says the young woman who has also spent some years in Moscow. “However, here in the centre there is still a lot of light – when you go the suburbs where I live there is no street light at all. You really need to know the way from your house to the bus stop!”
“The outskirts of the city are very poorly illuminated. There are only some heavily-lit belts, like on the way to the airport, but the parallel street is covered in darkness. Like a zebra”, confirms Igor Neaga, an engineer and regional adviser of the GIZ, which specialises in street illumination, “and I am not speaking of rural areas”.
With more than 70 fatalities per million inhabitants, Moldovan road-traffic deaths exceed the EU average by about a third, according to a UNECE survey conducted in 2015. Counting per passenger cars, Moldova actually comes third, with about five times as many fatalities as in Austria or France. “Every day on television you hear news about accidents”, says Neaga. “The reasons for these accidents are, of course, diverse. However, the absence or poor quality of street illumination certainly has an impact on the numbers, especially in urban areas”. When leaving the city centre, the pedestrian crossings are not lit at all. “This should not be allowed. If you build a pedestrian crossing, it should be obligatory to light it”.
In the last few years, there have been many efforts to improve the situation. “Until 2013, there was basically only functioning street illumination in Chișinău and Balti, the second biggest city”, says Neaga. However, in recent years, there have been lots of projects, mostly funded by foreign sponsors. “I would say that street illumination has been installed in about half of the settlements. However, whether the illumination is now still working is another question”.
Neaga himself has been responsible for a GIZ pilot project on street illumination in a rural area. The project targeted Tatarauca Veche, a settlement of about 1800 inhabitants in the very north-east of the Republic. It was the first project to illuminate the streets in a village. Today, four years later, the street illumination in Tatarauca Veche is not working.
“It worked for one and a half years or so and then it was out of order,” says Neaga. According to him, the situation might not be hopeless at all. “There might only be small technical problems, with the cable or on one of the appliances. It would be enough if a specialist came to take a look at it. It is not such a big deal. However, this has not happened”. For Neaga, this is very frustrating. “We have given them over 10,000 euros and there has been no lasting effect”, he says.
Tatarauga Veche is not an exceptional case. According to Neage, many of the efforts put into street illumination the last few years have ended in a return to darkness. According to Neaga, the problem is mainly to be sought in the ties between business and politics, not at the legislation level. “In 2013, our republic ratified the European guidelines for the quality of street illumination. The guidelines are not the problem”. The problem arises at the implementation level. “The operators are doing business, and the politicians are close to the operators”.
The official projects, initiated by the national fund for energy efficiency, are conceived in line with the standards. “When a street is to be lit, or the lamps are to be exchanged from sponsors’ money, a project is created. In our case, this has been done by DIA Lux, a German company for illumination planning. They produce a simulation, taking into account the parameters of the street, its diameter and so on, in order to calculate the necessary density and power of the lamps”. On the basis of this project, the appropriate material can be bought. However, this, unfortunately, does not happen. In a tacit agreement with the mayor, the companies just buy cheaper material and this is why this new material then stops working after half-a-year or even half-a-month”.
In a functioning administration, the mayor should be held accountable. “The national authorities should ask him why, when he has received the money, the appliances are not working” – but this just does not happen. According to Neaga, this is because most of the mayors are members of the Democratic Party. “They are under the umbrella”, he says. “Especially now with the elections coming up, no one is interested in such things”.
The entanglement between business and politics, according to Neaga, is also the problem behind the poor lighting conditions in Chișinău. “Here, in the city, you can say that street illumination is supplied as a business”. The enterprise, Lumteh, has been founded by the local authority and is financed from the municipal budget, “but they just buy cheaper material than they should be buying. So, they are making a personal profit, and I am sure some of this money also ends up in the politicians’ pockets”. Lumteh itself is not answering the phone, and enquiries by email have remained unanswered.
However, cronyism is not the only obstacle to the installation and maintenance of a functioning spine of street illumination in the country. Another problem is the mentality of the people. Many of them do not pay the fees for local public services. “They don't understand that they have to contribute to keep the appliances working”, says Neage. According to him, the households not paying the fees possibly amount to about half of the population, and this because the payments are rarely enforced. “Where there is no local leader, the number may also rise to 90%”.
Maybe people are just too indigent, especially in the rural areas? Neaga does not agree. The fee ranges from five to seven euros per household per month. “However, this also covers electro-energy, water...so, let’s say about one euro of this sum goes into street illumination. If you are a couple, this is 50 cents per person per month. People might be poor, but this service costs less than a bottle of beer or a packet of cigarettes per month”.
In order to make people understand, a public campaign would be necessary. “They need to understand that when a light bulb explodes, they need to exchange it on their own account. You would have to explain that to them. However, we do not have the set-up to do that, especially in the regions”. It is, however, also a problem which arises from the process of the distribution of EU aid in general. “Money has to be given to the right person, and the people have to be ready for it. If they are not prepared to contribute to keeping the appliances running, they should not be given the money”.
The overall situation is making Neaga feel downhearted. “What hurts most is that an immense amount of money has been invested in street illumination in recent years”. According to an enquiry he has carried out, several million lei have been spent on improving the illumination of settlements. “For our Republic, this is an immense amount and, in the end, little has changed. Some things are working, many are not”. There are different layers to the problem – from the government to the local authorities, the companies and the people – but the problem that is common to all of them, according to Neage, is bad thinking. “I always say that we live poorly, because we think poorly,” he says.
Maybe some comfort can be found when looking up into star-littered night sky of Chișinău, a sight that it is hard to find in western capitals – or, in the words of the Japanese writer, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, who, in his essay entitled In Praise of Shadows, deplored the frenzy of western modernity to make everything light and clear. “A phosphorescent jewel gives off its glow and colour in the dark and loses its beauty in the light of day. Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty”. After all, light pollution may also not be the best outcome for people and the environment.