Worsening Air Pollution In Africa Costs Many Lives, Untold Sums


Air pollution in parts of Africa has reached near crisis levels. The Guardian reported recently that between 1990 and 2013, deaths from airborne particulate matter increased 35% across the continent. Deaths from polluted air in houses also increased during that period, but ‘only’ by 18%, a researcher at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development told the paper.

The air pollution problem has become so bad that it is resulting in more premature deaths than either unsafe water or childhood nutrition issues. A study by a global policy forum has found that at current rates of increase in outdoor and indoor pollution, a number of African countries appear to be headed for crisis conditions not unlike those found in China and India. (Schools were closed for three days earlier this month in Delhi, India, because the air pollution was so bad, the BBC reported on November 6th.)


The worst pollution in Delhi air in 17 years.  Getti Images via The BBC

Exhaust fumes are a large contributor to the problem, as are open cooking fires, power plants and the burning of rubbish – a widespread practice because, as one wag put it a few decades ago, “there’s no such place as ‘away’” when stuff is discarded: Once thrown out, most waste tends to stay ‘there’ for very long periods of time, and as more and more stuff is thrown out, viable storage areas become fewer and fewer.

By one measure, Onitsha, Nigeria, is the world’s most polluted city. By another measure, that dubious title goes to Zabol, in eastern Iran, on that country’s border with Afghanistan.)

For Africa as a whole, the estimated economic cost of premature air pollution deaths in 2013 was roughly $215bn (£175bn) a year for outdoor air pollution, and $232bn for household, or indoor, air pollution.

“This mega-trend is set to continue to unfold throughout this century<, says Rana Roy, the author of one study on the problem. “It suggests that current means of transportation and energy generation in African cities are not sustainable,” said Roy. “Alternative models to those imported from industrialized economies, such as dependence on the individual automobile, are necessary.

“It is striking that air pollution costs in Africa are rising in spite of slow industrialization, and even de-industrialization in many countries. Should this latter trend successfully be reversed, the air pollution challenge would worsen faster, unless radically new approaches and technologies were put to use.

“The ‘new’ problem of outdoor air pollution is too large to be ignored or deferred to tomorrow’s agenda. At the same time, Africa cannot afford to ignore the ‘old’ problem of household pollution or to consider it largely solved: it is only a few high-income countries – Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritius, Morocco, Seychelles and Tunisia – that can afford to view the problem of air pollution as being a problem of outdoor particulate pollution alone.”

The study stresses that there is not nearly enough knowledge of the sources of air pollution and its impact in much of Africa. It quotes UK scientist Mathew Evans, professor of atmospheric chemistry at York University, who is leading a large-scale investigation of air pollution in west Africa.

“London and Lagos have entirely different air quality problems. In cities such as London, it’s mainly due to the burning of hydrocarbons for transport. African pollution isn’t like that. There is the burning of rubbish, cooking indoors with inefficient fuel stoves, millions of steel diesel electricity generators, cars which have had the catalytic converters removed and petrochemical plants, all pushing pollutants into the air over the cities. Compounds such as sulphur dioxide, benzene and carbon monoxide, that haven’t been issues in western cities for decades, may be a significant problem in African cities. We simply don’t know.”

Whereas China has reached a level of development that has allowed it to concentrate on solving air pollution, most African countries must grapple with several major environmental burdens at the same time, said the report.


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