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

“Black grit collects on cars over a weekend, clothes get filthy and there is dust everywhere. There are 16 times as many vehicles on the road as when I came; the city just cannot cope,” McCormick said.

With half the world’s population growth over the next 30 years expected to occur in Africa, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) expects the number of cars in African cities to rise dramatically.

“The vehicle fleet will double in the next seven years in Nairobi,” said Rob de Jong, head of UNEP’s urban environment unit. “The number of cars in Africa is still relatively small, but the emissions per vehicle are much higher [than the rest of the world].”

Africa’s urban air is especially bad, because so few cars are new, the majority having been shipped in secondhand from Japan and Europe with their catalytic converters and air filters dismantled. It is in danger of becoming a dumping ground for the world’s old cars — importing vehicles that no longer meet pollution standards.

Across the continent, this explosion in car numbers, coupled with people cooking indoors on wood-fired stoves, is creating an urban health crisis already estimated by the UN to be killing 776,000 people a year. If unchecked, within a generation it will kill twice as many each year, with devastating costs to public services and economies.

“Africa is urbanizing and ‘motorizing’ faster than any other region in the world,” De Jong said. “Its pollution is not yet level with New Delhi or Beijing, but it is getting there quickly. Respiratory diseases are now the number one disease in Kenya and that is directly linked to air pollution. It is rapidly on the rise.”

According to Marie Thynell, an urban researcher at Sweden’s Gothenburg University who led a study of Nairobi pollution last year: “The amount of cancer-causing elements in the air within the city is 10 times higher than the threshold recommended by the WHO.”

Thynell’s research uncovered dramatically high pollution spikes on all of Nairobi’s main roads.

“The pollution is uncontrolled and particularly deadly in slum districts and for drivers, street vendors and traffic police,” she said.

Michael Gatari, an environmental scientist at the Kenyan Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, predicts the nation will have “a very sick population in years to come. Even what limited data there is suggests [air pollution] is around 30 times worse than in London, and that Kenya is building up an immense health problem.”

“Thirty percent more diesel is being burned in Nairobi compared with five years ago. Without doubt, the pollution will have a huge economic and health impact. We will see more and more cancers and heart disease, many more asthma cases and respiratory diseases,” he said.

African air pollution is closely linked to poverty, Gatari said.

“In the slums, people light an open fire and close their windows; they are enclosed in very high pollution. Drivers mix good diesel with kerosene. There is a lot of burning of plastics and no proper incineration. Dust is blown everywhere by the wind, and there is loose soil from farming,” he said.

In west Africa, the manmade air pollution from the string of coastal cities, including Lagos, Accra, Abidjan and Cotonou, is now so bad that it is mixing with natural pollutants blown from the Sahara and affecting cloud cover and the rain, said Mat Evans, professor of atmospheric chemistry at York University, who is leading a large-scale investigation of air pollution in the region.

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