Our Burning Planet


South Africa among top air polluters on the continent, NGO report finds

South Africa among top air polluters on the continent, NGO report finds
Emissions rise from towers of Sasol’s Secunda coal-to-liquids plant in Mpumalanga. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A Greenpeace report says South Africa is home to six of the world’s 10 largest nitrogen dioxide emission hotspots and nine of Africa’s 10 largest nitrogen dioxide point sources.

South Africa houses some of the biggest air pollution sources on the African continent as a result of its energy sector, a Greenpeace Africa, Middle East and North Africa report on human-caused major air polluters in Africa has found.

The report, titled, ‘Major air polluters in Africa unmasked’, found that  South Africa is home to six of 10 of the world’s largest nitrogen dioxide emission hotspots and also to nine of 10 of Africa’s largest nitrogen dioxide point sources.

Two of the world’s largest sulphur dioxide emission hotspots and four sulphur dioxide point sources are found in South Africa.

south africa air polluter

The Kendal coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In southern Africa, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide sources, as well as volatile organic compounds (industry solvents polluting the air), are attributable to the energy sector. Residential combustion, such as the burning of fuel for cooking and heating, is said to contribute the most towards black carbon emissions, the report found.

Nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide – produced as a result of burning fossil fuels at a high temperature – are considered pollutants to have the strongest evidence for public health concern. Both long and short-term exposure to the pollutants threaten health problems.

Nitrogen dioxide has been linked to asthma in the long term and can irritate airways and aggravate respiratory diseases, while sulphur dioxide is mainly linked with asthma hospital admission.

‘Systemic injustice’

Findings particularly point to the Mpumalanga region, which is said to stand out globally for its levels of pollution. The Highveld Priority Area’s poor air quality is a result of industrial activity such as intense mining, coal-fired power plants, iron and steel manufacturing and chemical plants. These are also the industries the report said most emission hotspots are associated with.

The report found that Eskom operates many of the most polluting plants in South Africa.

Fana Sibanyoni, an activist from the Mpumalanga region, said in a statement that the report shed light on the struggles the people of Mpumalanga endure, and the connection between “every breath of polluted air to the systematic injustice that fuels unemployment and health disparities in Secunda”.

“For too long, the people of Mpumalanga have borne the burden of South Africa’s coal dependency, not just in the air we breathe but in the opportunities we’re denied. The pollution from coal plants like those operated by Sasol in our region has not only tarnished our health, leading to failed health assessments and chronic diseases, but it has also clouded our future, leaving us jobless as companies opt to hire from outside, citing our ‘unfitness’ for work,” said Sibanyoni.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Coal’s deadly toll — Mpumalanga community members share their experiences of sickness and suffering

Trevor Brewer, Director of local air treatment specialists Solenco, said in a press release that the health threat posed by air pollution affected unborn children, with vulnerable groups disproportionately impacted.

south africa air polluter

Eskom’s Arnot coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Said Brewer: “Despite this, the needs and perspectives of South Africa’s most vulnerable groups remain largely absent from our climate policies, action, and investment at all levels… South Africans have to take air quality into their own hands.”

Pollution across Africa

Greenpeace’s report, which researched regions across Africa, found that air pollution contributing to nitrogen dioxide was similar across the continent, but that there were also notable differences.

In North Africa, for example, the biggest contributor was found to be the energy sector, with fuel burning in households emitting black carbon. The same pattern is seen in West, East and southern Africa.

Central Africa, however, had residential combustion as a major contributor to nitrogen dioxide, volatile organic compounds and black carbon, with poor air quality attributed to waste burning, mining, cement manufacturing and mineral processing.

The report said Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa emerged as the continent’s most polluted countries in terms of the air pollution disease burden.

To address the health problems and 1.1-million premature deaths in Africa, the report has proposed actions for governments and legislators that include:

  • Aligning air quality regulations with those of the WHO;
  • Accelerating the development of air quality monitoring networks;
  • Monitoring and reporting air pollutant emissions;
  • Improving access to clean, renewable energy for cooking;
  • Implementing the Highveld Priority Area Air Quality Management Plan, upholding the Pretoria high court judgement of the “Deadly Air” litigation;
  • Urgent action to phase out fossil fuels and achieve net zero by 2050;
  • Reducing waste generation, stopping waste colonialism and providing effective waste management;
  • African national governments investing in sustainable, climate-friendly energy projects. DM
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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Patrick Mavhivha says:

    South Africa is not a manufacturing country. That story is crap

    • Lawrence Sisitka says:

      How on earth did this comment get through! We have long known that SA contributes excessively to air pollution in Africa,and that Mpumalanga is the centre of the pollution, with its citizens suffering dreadfully. This article simply reinforces this, and calls for us to do what we should have been doing for the last 20 years. We don’t even abide by our own very weak pollution standards. Once again, the DM should not allow comments such as this by Mr Mavhivha to see the light of day.

    • Rob Scott says:

      So Patrick what are we?

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