While air pollution in India, China, and other emerging economies has become a major area of concern for scientists and policymakers, it has gained little traction in Africa where it is taking a serious toll on the economy and human health. Toxic air has caused more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition on the continent, while significantly contributing to the climate crisis.
Africa could be spared a host of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, through cleaner air, but air pollution data across the continent that could influence policy is of poor quality or inaccessible, making efforts to track air quality difficult. Seamless air quality prediction and forecasting are crucial, and in response, international efforts are underway to expand these capacities across Africa.
Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health. By reducing air pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma. The lower the levels of air pollution, the better the cardiovascular and respiratory health of the population will be, both long- and short-term.
Rapid urbanization means increase in motorization and economic activity which in turn leads to increased air pollution if countermeasures are not taken. Traffic emissions, transported dust and open burning are all significant contributors to air pollution in Africa. The Sahara desert is a major source of transport dust, especially during the Harmattan season in West Africa. Mercury emissions are very high in South Africa due to coal combustion and gold mining. Air pollutants may contaminate water and soil through atmospheric deposition. 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.
According to the WHO, around three billion people around the world cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves which burn everything from wood to animal manure, plant waste and coal. An estimated 7.8 million people die prematurely as a result of diseases caused either directly or indirectly by air pollution linked to cooking. Children are most at risk, with the WHO reporting that more than 50 percent of premature deaths due to pneumonia in children under the age of five are caused by particles in household air pollution.
If the high particulate pollution levels persist, average life expectancy in the regions would be 1.2 years lower, and a total of 677 million person-years would be lost, relative to if air quality met the WHO standard, according to report by The Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).
The negative health effects of air pollution are well known. Exposures to ozone and particulate matter, for example, cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease. But most countries in Africa lack the infrastructure needed to map in detail the levels of pollutants people are exposed to and how those pollutants affect public health. A comparison with other environmental health risks and prominent communicable diseases shows that air pollution is as serious a concern. For example, in Nigeria, air pollution is second only to HIV / AIDS in terms of its impact on life expectancy cutting off more years than malaria and water and sanitation concerns.
A study by UNICEF estimated that only 6% of African children live within 50km of an air quality monitor. In North America and Europe this figure is over 70% of children. This analysis for Africa is most likely an overestimate, as it included some low-cost air quality monitors. These have much shorter lives and are less accurate than reference instruments, such as those used in most monitoring by government regulators.
A NASA study on pollution states that pollution from industrial sources and motor vehicles cause high mortality rates in Nigeria and South Africa while emissions from burning biomass and poor air quality due to dust storms increase the number of premature deaths in West and Central Africa.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, it was second only to malaria. In Ghana, it ranked as the deadliest of these threats, and in Cote d’Ivoire it shortened life by about the same amount as those communicable diseases.
Air quality in cities of African 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. Industrial expansion in these cities is also a major contributor to the worsening air pollution. In Lagos, home to 20 million people, permanently reducing particulate pollution to meet the WHO guideline would increase life expectancy by 2.9 years. In the Niger Delta, which has faced the impact of oil refineries, many of which were illegal, life expectancy is three years lower than what it would be under the WHO guideline.
There is a link between air pollution and poverty since poor people are exposed to higher concentrations of air pollutants and tend to suffer disproportionately from the effects of deteriorating air quality (AQ). Children in cities exposed to high concentrations of air pollutants will more often develop respiratory ailments which prevent them from developing and learning well. As a consequence they will suffer in adult life from low levels of qualifications and skills. The implication of poorly educated children is not only a reduction of quality of their lives but also an obstacle for the economic development of a country as a whole.
In the period from 1990 to the present, and at each succeeding five-year interval in between, the death toll from air pollution in Africa has risen in tandem with the uninterrupted growth in the size of the urban population of Africa over this period. The total of annual deaths from ambient particulate matter pollution across the African continent increased by 36% from 1990 to 2013, from a then relatively low base of ≈ 180 000 in 1990 to ≈ 250 000 in 2013 [Charts above]. Over this period, deaths from household air pollution also continued to increase, by 18%, from an already high base of ≈ 400 000 in 1990 to well over 450 000 in 2013 [Charts below 1]. For Africa as a whole, as at 2013, the estimated economic cost of premature deaths from ambient particulate matter pollution was ≈ USD 215 billion. The estimated economic cost of premature deaths from household air pollution was ≈ USD 232 billion [Charts below 2].
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. Now, satellite data can predict air quality in cities and towns and can plug the gap in African cities without ground-based sensors.
Moreover, Africa is not well-equipped with air quality monitoring because of the high cost of air quality monitoring equipment including their appropriate calibration and certification. 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.
In order to tackle the problem of poor air quality and its effect on people’s health, it’s necessary to understand how much air pollution people are exposed to. Having an air quality forecast and assessment system in place, along with the required technical capacities, will support governments to improve air quality and public health, mitigate the occurrence of acute air pollution episodes, particularly in urban areas, and reduce the associated impacts on agriculture, ecosystems and climate. This is achieved through air quality monitoring. The need is not only for more monitoring infrastructure. The data it produces should be accessible, so that they can be used to make a difference.
By making monitoring information open, its value and impact is greatly increased beyond the needs of the immediate data owner or user, which is often a government entity or industrial facility. By opening data, governments and industry can increase people’s trust in the findings. It can also create opportunities for a wider community of users to analyse and reuse the information. Dakar is one of only 41 cities across 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that tracks air quality, which is the first step in defining the daily health risks that city residents face.
Policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, energy-efficient housing, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management would reduce key sources of urban outdoor air pollution. South Africa has some of the most mature air quality legislation and infrastructure in Africa, providing a relatively consistent supply of quality data. There’s a network of government-run stations and some industry-run stations reporting to the South African Air Quality Information System.
The adoption of the World Health Assembly resolution on air pollution and health, and Sustainable Development Goals is a welcome boost to urban air pollution control efforts. Reducing outdoor emissions from household coal and biomass energy systems, agricultural waste incineration, forest fires and certain agro-forestry activities (e.g. charcoal production) would reduce key rural and peri-urban air pollution sources in developing regions.
Preventing children’s exposure to air pollution, including by creating smart urban planning so major sources of pollution is not located near schools, clinics or hospitals; and minimize exposure in the home. Reducing outdoor air pollution also decreases emissions of CO2 and short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon particles and methane, thus contributing to the near- and long-term mitigation of climate change.
In addition to outdoor air pollution, indoor smoke is a serious health risk for some 3 billion people who cook and heat their homes with biomass fuels and coal. People should switch to using gas or electric appliances. These kinds of improvements could be implemented relatively quickly at the local level. Putting an end to the fires and land clearing in Central Africa will prove more of a challenge.