Recently I’ve seen all over the news Beijing’s “beyond the index” air quality. So I tried to look for PM 2.5 measurements for African cities – but to no avail. Apparently, international environmental organizations only care about PM measurements from the developed world and China (and maybe a tiny bit of India and Mexico). And of course African governments don’t monitor their own air quality – I don’t even know if there is a single air quality measurement instrument in Ghana. Hmm if there is zero data, how do you know there are no pockets of Africa that actually breathe worse miasma than Beijing?
So it would seem from the media and policy discourse that being worried about the air is the privilege of the exclusive few? Really? Only industrialized countries have bad air problems? True – many poor countries have other killers that are more deadly than the air they breathe, but it doesn’t mean that just because a country is “per-industrialized” that there is no bad air. I’m going to list the following factors that contribute to bad air in African cities that may create more alarming air qualities than their levels of economic development may indicate:
1) Burning of biomass for fuel – which releases all kinds of yucky smoggy polluting soot, volatile organic compounds, dense by-products that penetrate the lungs. As much as 95% of fuel comes from biomass – and unlike rich countries, poor nations don’t have clean stoves and appliances that burn efficiently. Indoor air pollution from biomass burning is already one of the leading causes of death here. And when you walk outside, you can always smell the signature leaves, grass, even tires being burned. People also burn large chunks of grassland seasonally to prevent real uncontrolled fires during the dry-season. The result – all this POLLUTION in the air, and yet no measurement, nobody realizing it as a problem!
2) Old vehicles – not just old, but SUPER OLD. This is a no-brainer, but if you haven’t been to some African cities, you may have a hard time imagine that most of the public vehicles on the street are from the pre-independence era. Those 1920s Mercedes Benz mini-vans that emit pure benzene type carcinogens have not yet been banned here as you would assume.
2) The climate – From November to March is the Harmattan season in West Africa. The dry, dusty wind carrying fine particles from the Sahara that obscures the sky for weeks at a time. This adds to the dry season grass burning that makes it very uncomfortable to breathe on some days.
4) That’s right – the exponential growth of cars is also NOT a China only problem. This is especially true in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and other lower-middle income countries, where the number of cars on the street grows by double digits, not unlike that of China.
The moral of the story is, don’t be fooled to think air pollution is not Africa’s problem. What makes it so sad is that we don’t even have any instruments to measure air quality here. I’m going to buy a PM 2.5 instrument….