Two years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) acknowledged that air pollution is the world’s worst environmental health risk. It also estimated that more than seven million people die prematurely due to air pollution every year, a staggering one in every eight deaths globally.
More than half of these deaths are as a result of household air pollution, almost all of which occurs in low- and middle-income countries, of which Africa has the highest number after South East Asia and the Western Pacific. This is partly caused by the large percentage of the population using domestic solid fuel. Onitsha, in Nigeria and South Africa have been identified as having high PM particles as against the WHO guideline of 20 micrograms per cubic metre.
Yet, the WHO has not put in place an air quality programme for its sub-Saharan Africa region, even though these exists for other regions. It is not clear why there is no WHO air quality programme in sub-Saharan Africa. A possible explanation may be that environmental health risk factors have always been overshadowed by other risk factors like malnutrition, HIV, TB and malaria.
A progress report tabled at the UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, which urged leaders to take action to improve air quality with the support of the United Nations body, found Africa almost entirely absent.
Some of the challenges noted by concerned air quality experts and epidemiologists are:
- Lack of Information and Data
- Lack of continuous air quality monitoring
- Lack of resources to monitor and quantify the risks of air pollution
And what action can be taken to address this?
Moving on, African air quality and atmospheric science researchers and epidemiologists are applying innovative thinking to measuring air quality but it is critical that air quality data collected are available through data agreements to the public – from researchers to the media – so this data can be analysed and published to communicate the impact of air quality.
Tackling the problem will also need collaboration across academic disciplines, and global, regional and national governmental departments. The WHO and UNEP regional offices also need to be involved. African scientists can also work to develop local regional working groups focused on air quality under initiatives like Future Earth.
Ensuring all players work together towards more visibility, collaboration and support for air quality in Africa is crucial.