20 Oct 2016 Story Air

Air Pollution: Africa’s Invisible, Silent Killer

Air Pollution: Africa’s Invisible, Silent Killer

Air pollution remains a major challenge in Africa. About 600,000 deaths every year across the continent are associated with this invisible killer. With 23 per cent of global deaths (12.6 million) linked to environmental factors, WHO estimates that air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths every year.

Air pollution is caused by harmful particulates and gases, released in high quantities into the air. These pollutants cause disease and death to humans, damage to other living organisms such as animals and food crops, and harm our ecosystems. Air pollution is caused by indoor and outdoor activities though the latter, which is largely a result of burning fossil fuels to produce electricity and to power vehicles, is responsible for most of the world’s air pollution. Large and small scale industrial activities also cause air pollution by emitting substances into the air, which are harmful to human health and are the root cause of many of the respiratory diseases and cancers in humans.

Air pollutants include black carbon and greenhouse gases, one of which is carbon dioxide (CO2), a common component of vehicle exhaust emissions. Greenhouse gases cause global warming by trapping heat from the sun in the earth's atmosphere. CO2 is a good indicator of how much fossil fuel is burned and how many pollutants are emitted as a result. The burning of charcoal used for cooking in homes also produces black carbon and another gas, carbon monoxide, which is extremely dangerous and is a major cause of death in many households.  

Black carbon also harms human health. It is a primary component of fine particle air pollution (PM2.5), and can cause or contribute to a number of adverse health effects, including asthma and other respiratory problems, low birth weights, heart attacks, and lung cancer.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), global urban air pollution levels increased by eight per cent between 2008 and 2013 and this is expected to rise given the increasing level of migration to urban areas, which will likely lead to more human activities and so more pollution.  More than 80 per cent of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO limits, threatening lives, productivity and economies. In Africa, the increasing level of urbanization coupled with poor urban planning leads to large numbers of people living in congested and poorly serviced housing. This serves to exacerbate the problem of pollution.

Many countries inform about daily air quality by using the Air Quality Index (AQI). This index shows how clean or polluted the air is and what associated health effects might be a concern given the effects one may experience within a few hours or days of exposure to polluted air.

AQI is based on "criteria" pollutants that measure the presence of contaminants in the air, such as ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. As the AQI increases, a correspondingly large percentage of the population is likely to experience increasingly severe adverse health effects.

Most developed countries have high-tech equipment and monitoring systems to collect and analyze data on air quality, which is then used to generate information that informs policy and the general population at local, national and regional levels. Unfortunately, access to this technology is still limited in Africa. As a result, the scarcity of data and information on air quality in Africa is a real concern, pointing to a gap that needs to be urgently sealed to enable the continent to better understand its air quality status, and the causes and consequences in terms of the related health risks. Data and statistics on air quality are critical to guide policy-making and other responses that are needed to address the challenges caused by poor air quality.

Many rural areas in Africa are isolated, which increases the cost of capital infrastructure for electricity distribution, presenting challenges to governments and private sector companies that are aiming to increase power connectivity in rural or sparsely populated areas. However, this challenge also presents opportunities for innovation: photovoltaic and solar power systems are ideal solutions for areas without grid connection in rural Africa. Governments are investing in solar and wind power plants to ensure their populations in these areas have access to clean and affordable energy, thus reducing health risks and diseases resulting from the long-term exposure of burning wood fuel, coal or using kerosene lamps and stoves.

The United Nations Environment Programme is taking the lead through research, innovation and implementation of programmes that seek to tackle poor air quality. The organization is a partner in several leading global transport and energy programmes in areas such as fuel economy, Short-lived climate pollutants (SLCP) and infrastructure development. These programmes are implemented through public-private partnerships. Through participation in projects such as the Global Fuel Efficiency Initiative, Share the Road, Partnerships for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, Africa Sustainable Transport Forum, Climate and Clean air Coalition, Global Clean Ports Project and Electric Mobility, UNEP works with partners to decouple increased mobility from increased emissions.

In 2014, during the first United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), member states requested UNEP to support global efforts to improve air quality. UNEP has since launched several programmes, including an initiative to develop a low-cost sensor that can be used across the developing world to track and help identifying pollution hotspots.

At the second session of the UN Environment Assembly, UNEP released the latest report on air quality. The report, entitled Actions on Air Quality, focuses on ten measures to improve air quality, organized around six categories: indoor air pollution, public transport, fuels and vehicles, industry, waste burning and air quality laws and regulations. The report found improvements in some areas such as access to cleaner cooking fuels and stoves, renewables, fuel sulphur content and public transport. This points to a growing desire for change. However, the report also notes that global air quality continues to decline, posing increased threats to humans and the environment.

The Actions on Air Quality report focuses on ten basic measures to improve air quality. It shows that the majority of countries are yet to adopt these air quality policy actions. But the report also highlights many good examples that can be emulated to spark worldwide action. Some highlights from Africa are:

  • More than three billion people still use solid fuels and inefficient cook stoves, but the Seychelles was able to improve indoor air quality by transitioning the whole country from solid fuels and inefficient cook stoves to liquefied petroleum gas;
  • Only a quarter of countries have advanced fuels and vehicles standards, which can significantly reduce small particulate matter pollution, especially in cities. Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda, decided that from 1 January 2015 only low sulphur fuels would be allowed in their countries. If met by similar vehicles standards this would reduce vehicle emissions by over 90 per cent;
  • The majority of countries around the world, including those in Africa, have now put in place national air quality standards.

The recently published Global Environmental Outlook, GEO-6, confirmed that both outdoor and indoor air quality is deteriorating rapidly in many areas due to various factors such the use of firewood and other biomass as sources of energy, increasing traffic volumes, importation of old second hands vehicles, and increased use of the two-stroke engine motorcycles as alternative means of transport in both urban and rural areas. The report calls upon African countries to invest in quick solutions such as better ventilated housing and clean cook stoves. It also urges African countries to adopt medium and long term measures to acquire clean energy.

Until this is all in place, a large portion of the African population will still have to bear the consequences of this silent, mass killer.

For more information, please contact:

Mohamed Atani, Regional Information Officer at: [email protected]  +254727531253