Air pollution costs in Africa now higher than sanitation and malnutrition costs

Image Credit: Nairobi traffic, FIA Foundation 

Air pollution is costing Africa about $395bn (USD) in human and economic costs and taking about 712,000 lives annually, making it a worse cause of premature deaths than childhood malnutrition responsible for 391,000 deaths and unsafe water that kills 275,000 annually. This is according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in a recent report.

There was a 36 per cent increase in annual deaths resulting from outdoor pollution and only 18 per cent increase for deaths resulting from indoor pollution between 1990 and 2013, indicating that outdoor pollution is a huge concern since it was growing at a very high pace. However, the economic cost of premature air pollution deaths resulting from outdoor pollution was estimated at $215bn annually in 2013 while that from indoor pollution was $232bn annually.

“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.”

Although deaths from air pollution have been witnessed elsewhere, the report finds Africa as a unique case because the toll of deaths from air pollution are related to other various risk factors such as unsafe water and poor sanitation and childhood underweight.

Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritius, Morocco, Seychelles and Tunisia are the only countries -- high-income countries for that matter -- that should view the air pollution problem as a problem of outdoor pollution alone: other countries should consider the problem of indoor pollution as still unsolved in their territories according to the report. There are concerns that although there has been a downward trend in emissions in OECD countries, the pace of decline of outdoor pollution over the past has been slow.

Obviously, air pollution effects extends beyond human and death impacts such as damage to animal and plant health, as well as agricultural and forestry resources. However, the cost of health impacts can account to 95 percent of full calculable costs and mortalities account for 90 percent of all these costs.

Worst contributors

The worst contributors of air pollution include power generation, traffic and industries. Pollution from these sources has been increasing rapidly in Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia and Nigeria, among other fast-developing countries, adds the report. Household cooking on open fires and imported used cars and trucks from rich countries are also major contributors of pollution around the continent.

Knowledge sources on air pollution are scanty

The report is the first major attempt to calculate the human and financial costs of dirty air in Africa and says that if unchecked, the problem could spiral into a health and climate crisis similar to that seen in China and India. Generally, knowledge on the sources of air pollution and its impact in much of Africa is very scanty, indicating how far the content could be from solving the menace.

Again, the report indicates the need to study air pollution specifically for Africa environments if a solution must be reached for the problem, given that the air pollution in Africa is unique from that of Western countries.

“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,” says UK scientist Mathew Evans, professor of atmospheric chemistry at York University. “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 Sulfur 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.”

Although air pollution is most rampant in Asia -- notably in China and India on a global perspective, Africa’s air pollution situation is worse than China given that China has already reached a level of development that allows it to concentrate on air pollution undistracted by problems such as unsafe water, unsafe sanitation and child malnutrition.

According to the report, information gaps in regard to air pollution around the continent are due to absence of regulation and regular monitoring that accompanies the regulation.

Bold measures and policies needed

Africa has a population of only 1.2 billion currently, which makes up about 16 percent of global population, and if its air pollution is already significantly contributing to climate change today, it is clear to see how that could worsen when the population reaches 2.5 billion or 25 percent of world’s population in 2050 or 4.4 billion (40 percent of the world’s population) in 2100, beckons the report.

The high air pollution statistics signal that Africa’s energy generation and means of transportation are not sustainable

according to Rana Roy, author of the report. The continent is expecting a billion urban dwellers in 2050 from the current 472 million, and thus there is need to boldly change the unsustainable course of urbanization. In addition to seriously considering changing urbanization policies, Africa needs to invest more in modern alternative transportation models and mass public transport systems such as the Rabat or Addis-Ababa tramways. It should consider alternative models to those imported from industrialized economies.

Africa, which has been increasing its energy mix to include more renewables, also requires the increased use of solar power and other cleaner energies to save poorer families from indoor pollution, from using coal and dung-fired cooking stoves.

Africa will still need to unite in order to solve these problems easily and faster.

“In so far as air pollutant emissions have trans-national environmental impacts on neighboring countries, what is required is relatively straight-forward: regional collaboration on research, regional coordination of mitigating actions, and, if necessary, regional co-funding in regard to both research and mitigation.