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