Urban air pollution in Sub-Saharan Africa: Time for action

Improving air quality is a target in four of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. And the adoption of the World Health Assembly resolution on air pollution and health – which sets out 13 measures to tackle air pollution and associated health impacts – attests to a growing concern over the impact of poor air quality globally.

In a recent article published in the Environmental Pollution journal, ‘Urban air pollution in Sub-Saharan Africa: Time for action,’ Kofi Amegah and Samuel Agyei-Mensah call for action on air pollution in African cities. They write that the SDGs and WHA measures are a “welcome boost for urban air pollution control efforts in the region” (p:2). But, as they note, “Air quality in cities of Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries has deteriorated with the situation driven by rapid population growth and its attendant increased vehicle ownership, increased use of solid fuels for cooking and heating, and poor waste management practices.”

As the article highlights, there is a clear lack of urgency from SSA governments in addressing air pollution issues. This is clear when we look at the scarcity of  reliable data on air pollution levels.

There is evidence that air quality in SSA cities is deteriorating. PM2.5 concentrations in SSA cities have been estimated at 100 mg/m3 compared to <20 mg/m3 in most European and North American cities (Brauer et al., 2012). According to another study by Akumu (2016), the cost of air pollution in African cities can be as high as 2.7% of GDP. The WHO attributed 176,000 deaths in the region to ambient air pollution exposure in 2012.

Looking at the international policy instruments that aim to reduce air pollution in African cities, Amegah and Agyei-Mensah outline some measures for addressing this pollution and its associated health impacts.

Strengthening the capacity of countries for air quality monitoring (AQM) is key. This will provide additional data to justify policy interventions. Except for South Africa, which has a “comprehensive and well organized AQM programme” (p:2), programmes of this type are rolled out as sporadic initiatives across the continent. The authors call for more technical assistance to develop AQM management systems.

If curbing industrial emissions is a solution, perhaps the main window of opportunity lies in transport solutions and the reduction of vehicle ownership.  Amegah and Agyei-Mensah argue that BRT systems ought to be favoured in order to reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality in cities. In Latin America, the positive impact of BRT systems on air pollution has already been proven and their use should be therefore encouraged in SSA, they note.

Other measures are also listed by the authors, such as outlawing importation of over-aged vehicles. Policies of this kind have been tested in many countries but have not however demonstrated significant results.

The authors also mention the importance of promoting clean cooking solutions, as charcoal and biomass fuel used in urban SSA account for 9.8% to 37% of ambient PM2.5 levels in the region (Chafe et al., 2014). The promotion and subsidization of liquefied petroleum gas (LPGs), as is used in Senegal, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, should therefore be encouraged.

“Lack of political will is likely to be the major challenge” (p:5), the authors note. International agencies such as WHO and UN bodies should in this respect continually engage with states and local governments on this issue, and make it an integrated part of their agenda, transversally across all policies. This needs to be supported by more evidences and research on air pollution, and its relationship with population health.

Article  available from Environmental Pollution, September, [sub required].

Image: World bank photo collection


Publication Type Journal Article
Publisher Environmental Pollution
Year 2016
Author(s) Kofi Amegah and Samuel Agyei-Mensah
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