Our Burning Planet


Johannesburg needs to clean its air to save lives, says report

Johannesburg needs to clean its air to save lives, says report
The Johannesburg skyline. (Photo: iStock)

In 2019 alone, some 5,300 people in Johannesburg died prematurely as a result of air pollution, according to a new report.

If Johannesburg tackled its pollution problem and implemented clean air interventions, from 2023-2040 the city could reduce deaths from pollution by 2,800 and save $640-million (R12-billion), a report by the Clean Air Fund released on Thursday has found.

The report, From Pollution to Solution in Africa’s Cities, investigates air pollution and the climate crisis, and their impacts on health, the economy and the environment. The study was carried out in Africa’s six fastest-growing cities: Nairobi, Yaoundé, Accra, Cairo, Lagos and Johannesburg. 

In 2019 alone, 5,300 people in Johannesburg died prematurely as a result of air pollution, the report said, while at a national level, the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution exceeded those caused by tuberculosis by almost 4%. Since 2000, 139,612 people in SA have died because of air pollution, the report said. 

Industry and power plants contribute 37% of Johannesburg’s fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution concentrations, biomass fuels contribute 17% and road transport 7%. The mismanagement of waste and agricultural slash-and-burn practices also contribute to the city’s air pollution. 

“The proximity of the polluting industrial zones to the urban population exacerbates air pollution,” said the report. “The Johannesburg-Pretoria urban area is located relatively close to the most industrialised region, where industrial activities include the energy-intensive and high pollutant emitting petrochemical, chemical, brick, tile, and steel industries…

“Johannesburg’s unique topography, on an escarpment or ‘Highveld’ with high-pressure systems, results in calm conditions with minimal wind. As a result, air pollution is often ‘trapped’ over Johannesburg.”

Although there are high amounts of air pollution in Johannesburg from everyday activities such as transport, cooking using coal, fumes from generators and industrialisation, the city’s air quality was rated as “moderate” over 10 months in a year by the Swiss air quality tracker IQAir.

The city at times undergoes extremely unhealthy air quality when a change in wind direction and cold temperatures shift and concentrate air pollution from areas such as Secunda and neighbouring provinces, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment has found. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Joburg enviro department says recent sulphur stench was harmless, but not all agree

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is one of the biggest environmental risks to health. Tackling air pollution can lower the burden of diseases from strokes, heart diseases, lung cancer and chronic and acute respiratory diseases such as asthma. Ambient air and household pollution have been found to cause about 6.7 million deaths annually, the WHO says. 

Johannesburg has been slow to implement aggressive measures to curb air pollution, particularly considering that living in Johannesburg lowers life expectancy by three years compared with living in Cape Town, according to IQAir.

Johannesburg is part of the C40 Cities’ programme African Cities for Clean Air, which provides cities with technical assistance to improve air quality. Other cities in the programme include Addis Ababa, Dakar, Durban and Lagos. An effort to improve air quality in Johannesburg was evident last year with the relaunch of ambient air quality monitoring stations that had been dysfunctional for more than three years. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: City of Joburg reopens vandalised air quality monitoring station to clean up ‘the air we share’

In a previous report, the Clean Air Fund found that despite the United Nations General Assembly declaring access to a healthy environment a basic human right last year, funds for reducing air pollution were limited. 

“The continent is warming faster than the global average, despite contributing less than 3% to total global greenhouse gas emissions. In spite of this, recent Clean Air Fund research shows that only 5% of total aid funding for reducing air pollution is directed at Africa. Perversely, from 2015-2021, donor governments spent 36 times more aid on prolonging fossil fuel use in Africa than tackling air pollution,” the report said.

Further recommendations to combat air pollution in African cities such as Johannesburg include governments addressing air pollution as a priority in national climate action plans. 

The report also recommended financial partnerships for technical support where required, to tackle air pollution and better understand the health impacts associated with it. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Andre Swart says:

    Too many people for the air!

    Over population is the cause!

    Reduce the number of people …

  • mike muller says:

    These claims and projections are really not helpful – they are not based on any local evidence and are just used by lobby groups to push particular agendas. Even in Witbank where the pollution is really bad, the health authorities will tell you that indoor air pollution is the worst problem in poor communities. Best way to help them healthwise would be to provide more cheap electricity for heating and cooking – and if ESKOM hadn’t been forced to spend huge amounts of money and water on SO2 control (and poor quality dirty coal) the efficiency gain from Kusile could have been distributed as free electricity to every poor household in Mpumalanga with plenty left over to sell! (And, by the way, SO2 is one of the most effective global ‘coolers’ and it is now offciially acknowledged by the UNFCCC that the current spike in global ‘warming’ has been substantially aggravated by the high cost SO2 cleanup campaign…. which is relevant, since the impacts of global warming have probably already caused more attributable deaths than SO2 ….

    So can Maverick please cut the propaganda and provide some science for a change!

    • Lawrence Sisitka says:

      And so the denial continues. I have asked this before, but never received a rational response: what is the underlying motivation for ignoring the totally overwhelming scientific, and increasingly visible evidence that burning fossil fuels is killing the planet? What do the denialists stand to gain? Maybe just a spurious sense of self-righteousness, and a feeling that everybody, absolutely everybody else is wrong. Well, if it makes you feel good then enjoy the wallow. Just don’t get in the way of the people who actually care and are trying to ensure a better future for their, and of course, your children.

      • mike muller says:

        I’m not a denialist – on the contrary, I just want the limited funds available to be used effectively to reduce CO2 emissions to tackle global warming as quickly, efficiently and equitably as possible. It is a well accepted fact that SO2 has helped to COOL the global climate significantly, and that measures to reduce SO2 without reducing CO2 AGGRAVATE warming. So making Kusile less efficient actually increases its climate impact by producing more CO2 per GigaWattHour. Take a deep breath, read the IPCC science and, if you still don’t understand, ask Daily Maverick to allow both sides of this particular argument to be presented. I suspect that their sponsors also don’t want you to hear it because it is simply embarrassing but we can only try!

    • Denise Smit says:

      So are you saying sulfur dioxide is safe and should be ignored?

      • mike muller says:

        Nope. I am saying that by focusing on reducing SO2 as a strategy to block coal fired power, the environmental activists have wasted public time and money, increased SA’s carbon emissions per MegaWattHour of electricity generated emissions and thus contributed directly to global warming. Indirectly, they have reduced the funding available for more sustainable generation. And if they were really worried about peoples’ health they would have done something about indoor household air pollution which has a far greater impact on health, as explained in my original comment. Put politely, it was not a clever strategy….. but, gee, didn’t they feel good about it

  • Denise Smit says:

    As individuals we must all plant a tree a year, use our own organic waste, save on water, plan the driving of cars better. Unfortunately our bad government force us not do be able to do this, with our electricity blackouts we have to burn fossil fuels for generators, us gas or wood to make food. And we must plan families and have less children

    • Julian Chandler says:

      If we all planted one tree a year, and cooked on wood-burning stoves, the world would be a desert on a matter of years.
      How would I feed my golden unicorn then?

  • virginia crawford says:

    Many cars drive around pouring black smoke – not the biggest issue but it has an immediate impact on thousands of people. Thousands of generators blasting- some poorly maintained and emitting clouds of smoke. No electricity, no water and polluted air: world class city?

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