Thu, Jul 14, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Now a dumping ground for old cars,
Africa reels from toxic air and traffic jams

Within a generation 1.5 million Africans a year could die from filthy air as the number of cars booms

By John Vidal  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

In Kampala, driving is not just something you do to get from A to B. It is a battle of egos and wit. Who will chicken out first from a possible collision?

It is a battle Uganda’s drivers take very seriously, particularly during rush hour. Even if you win a battle, and you manage to bully another car off the road, it is likely that the car that was bullied will seek revenge — hooting, screeching past and then suddenly breaking right in front of you, the driver with a satisfied smirk on his face. And it is usually a man.

Oh yes, there is a lot of sexism on Uganda’s roads. When a woman makes a mistake, or even if her car has simply broken down, most people will pass by and sneer: “Of course it is a woman.”

If it is a man making the traffic worse, people will glance at him sympathetically or even nonchalantly. He is a man. It must have been a problem beyond his control.

In this unholy mess, where, in a car, you can be stuck in traffic for an hour, the boda boda, a motorcycle taxi, is your one savior. As you sit on one, trying to clutch your purse so it is not grabbed along the way while at the same time holding on to cold metal or a strange man for dear life, it is hard to decide whether they are a blessing, curse or exotic experience.

Often unregulated, and immune to traffic rules, motorcycle taxis in Kampala contribute to Uganda’s high road accident fatality rates — one of the highest in the world.

However, it is not just accidents that are causing deaths. An unreliable public transport system has pushed almost everyone who can afford a car to buy one, and the pollution is alarming.

The cars are mostly Japanese made, used there for years — even decades — before being discarded to Uganda. The fumes from hundreds of cars on roads that were never meant for so much traffic mix with the stench from open sewers.

Most people in Kampala have accepted rush hour travel in the city, knowing that a failed transport system and the pollution that comes with it are signs of the bigger African problem of development.

A minibus belches black smoke; the truck behind it in the traffic jam billows white fumes. Eyes smart in the smog, as diesel gases from thousands of 10 and 15-year-old vehicles fill Nairobi’s hazy evening air.

This jam could last for one, three, even five hours — last year, one stretched for 50km — all the while adding to pollution levels that are “beyond imagination,” a resident said.

It could easily be Cairo, Lagos or another African megacity, but this is the eight-lane Mombasa Road in Kenya’s capital — a permanently clogged artery in a metropolis where the number of vehicles doubles every six years.

Kenya is one of the few countries in Africa to have banned cars using the most sulfurous fuels, but research there suggests this is still one of the most polluted cities in the world — made worse by smoke from roadside rubbish fires, diesel generators and indoor cooking stoves.

However, no one knows for sure, because like nearly all African cities, Nairobi does not regularly monitor its urban air quality.

“In 28 years of living in Nairobi, I have seen the number of people quadruple and car ownership go from 5 percent to 27 percent. The pollution is mind-boggling,” said Dorothy McCormick, a Nairobi University economics researcher and author on African transport.

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