Our Burning Planet


Scientists worry about SA’s collapsing air pollution monitoring stations

Scientists worry about SA’s collapsing air pollution monitoring stations
A haze of industrial dust shrouds the Assmang manganese factory in Cato Ridge, KwaZulu-Natal. Health experts say it is essential to monitor the levels of tiny specks of airborne pollutants that can enter and affect all organs of the body. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Fewer than 20% of government air pollution monitoring stations were capturing reliable data last year, partly due to rolling blackouts. Adding to these problems, dozens of sophisticated measuring devices have been vandalised or stolen. Some stations have simply fallen into disrepair due to a lack of municipal funding and maintenance.

The importance of keeping accurate measurements to resolve complex problems has been stressed by thinkers and innovators for centuries. Advocates of this principle have included the British physicist Lord Kelvin and the American management theorist Peter Drucker, who remarked that: “What gets measured gets managed.”

At a global level, the World Health Organization warns that nearly seven million die every year from outdoor and indoor air pollution. At a local level, roughly 30,000 South Africans are estimated to die prematurely each year from exposure to industrial smoke stack particles, traffic exhaust fumes or specks of soot in household air.

However, government data suggests that more than 80% of state-operated monitoring stations were either not working or not providing scientifically reliable data late last year.

air pollution monitoring

A snapshot of measured air-quality levels over South Africa on 8 May. Several monitoring stations are displaying ‘very unhealthy’ or ‘hazardous’ readings. (Source: Saaqis)

Eskom power cuts and scrap metal thieves have wreaked havoc with dozens of sensitive and expensive measuring instruments, but many of the stations are also no longer operational because of the lack of maintenance of equipment or skilled staff shortages in three tiers of government.

The upshot is that only 25 out of more than 130 government-operated air quality monitoring stations were providing continuous and reliable data as of November 2023 – leaving major gaps in monitoring poisonous air level trends nationwide.

air pollution monitoring

This table shows the status of government and SA Weather Service air monitoring stations during 2022. (Graphic: DFFE report, September 2023)

Since then, the situation has improved slightly, with nearly 28% of government-owned stations now fully operational and meeting the minimum data requirements. According to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE)  36 out of 130 government-owned statioins stations are now fully operational

Environment Minister Barbara Creecy said in November that her department was now working with National Treasury to “streamline” the procurement of specialised monitoring equipment and technical staff, while the SA Weather Service has also been asked to support the operation of up to 60 government monitoring stations over the next three years.

The rationale appears to be that it’s better to have fewer stations all operating reliably, rather than 130 or so government stations producing patchy data.

air pollution monitoring

A provincial breakdown of the status of Saaqis monitoring stations. (Graphic: DFFE report, September 2023)

In a further intervention, Creecy says her department has also incorporated nearly 60 privately operated monitoring stations into the official SA Air Quality Information System (Saaqis). 

These stations are operated by Eskom, Sasol and other industrial facilities and mining houses – raising questions in some quarters about the independence of such data.

Creecy’s plans to address the problems emerged in response to written questions in Parliament late last year from Democratic Alliance MP Hannah Winkler, who voiced alarm over “the dismal state” of the national monitoring network. 

Winkler also called for further urgent interventions, including a detailed action plan and backup energy supplies for monitoring stations – especially in pollution hotspots such as the Highveld and Vaal Triangle.

Significantly, two of South Africa’s most senior air pollution researchers have also voiced concerns about the impacts of load shedding and the decline of the Saaqis monitoring system.  

Prof Caradee Wright, a chief specialist scientist at the SA Medical Research Council, and Prof Rebecca Garland, a senior air pollution researcher at the University of Pretoria, have both stressed the importance of collecting reliable and continuous air measurements to safeguard public health.

air pollution monitoring

Professor Caradee Wright. (Photo: Supplied)

Professor Rebecca Garland. (Photo: Supplied)

In a commentary article in the SA Journal of Science late last year, Wright noted that most monitoring stations did not operate during power outages  – raising concern about whether Saaqis could detect air pollution spikes during extended periods of no electricity.

Based on an analysis of load shedding schedules at the Diepkloof monitoring station in Soweto, Wright and her colleagues estimated that up to 33% of data went missing from this station between September 2022 and February 2023 due to blackouts.

Graphs showing numerous gaps in the measurement of fine dust particles (PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide around Diepkloof, Soweto, in February 2023. (Graphic: Wright et al. 2023)

It was not just the lack of power. Subsequent surges or short circuits could also lead to instrument errors and further missing data when calculating air pollution levels, especially for pollutants that require an eight-hour averaging (running) time.

“We must have air quality data during load shedding to understand potential risks to human health from all air pollution sources across the country… We need to act urgently.

“Presently, we are ‘in the dark’ regarding the quality of air where air quality monitoring is occurring sporadically,” they warned.

Wright told Daily Maverick that reducing the number of government stations was “not ideal”, as the main objective of Saaqis was to protect health, especially “people living in poverty who are often worst affected by air pollution”.

Apart from the need to repair instruments damaged through load shedding or vandalism, the national system also had to be upgraded.

At a global level, health problems linked to air pollution are often associated with lung and heart diseases. However, a recent retrospective study by Wright and her colleagues has also provided preliminary evidence linking high air pollution levels to a higher rate of cleft lip/cleft palate (CLP) in babies born in five South African provinces.

A map showing numerous ‘hotspot clusters’ of cleft lip or cleft palate disorder, thought to be linked to maternal exposure to high levels of tiny particles of air pollution. (Graphic: Wright et al. 2023. Annals of Global Health)

The study, which involved analysing the birth addresses of over 2,500 babies born with CLP, identified several “hotspot clusters” in Gauteng, Limpopo, North-West, Mpumalanga and Free State, where daily concentrations of fine particles of dust (PM 10 and PM 2.5) often exceeded World Health Organisation standards.

The researchers noted that studies in Mexico and Mongolia also showed similar links between high levels of particulate pollution and the number of cleft lip/cleft palate cases.

“We discovered enough evidence of an effect (in South Africa) to warrant further investigation.”

Prof Garland has emphasised that continuous, long-term monitoring is a complex issue that requires significant financial and human capacity to ensure reliable data.

“It’s not just a question of buying air monitoring systems once.”

This meant that cities and municipalities had to set aside adequate budgets every year for upgrades, maintenance and operating costs.

However, Garland has supported Creecy’s plan to incorporate more privately operated monitoring stations into the official Saaqis network.

“Eskom, in particular, has some of the longest-running stations and they have provided us with a lot of data.”

Garland believes it is “critical” for local researchers to have free access to reliable air pollution data, especially in a country known to have high levels of pollution.

“We don’t have a lot of time or money to make the wrong decisions on air quality.”

Improving the current scenario could involve moving to a more hybrid system of monitoring that incorporates traditional reference stations, along with satellite-based modelling systems and lower-cost sensors.

Rico Euripidou, a researcher and epidemiologist with the groundWork environmental justice group, is also worried.

“This cake has been long in the baking,” he commented, likening the decline in air monitoring to the neglect of sewage and wastewater infrastructure by municipalities across the country.

“When there are usable data, the spheres of government are more likely to act and be held to account, whereas if there are no data, it’s as if the problem does not exist.

“We all know that the air quality in the priority areas and all of the hotspots is generally out of compliance (especially during the winter period). However, without the data to demonstrate this, the spheres of government responsible for air quality generally tend to forget this fact and shirk their responsibilities of oversight, compliance, monitoring and enforcement – as if by magic, the problem has just disappeared.”

Sasol’s Secunda plant is one of the world’s single-biggest sources of carbon dioxide emissions, along with other more harmful industrial fumes. (Photo: Google Maps)

Euripidou said his research colleague David Hallowes had always maintained that the failure of air quality monitoring networks – at least in KwaZulu-Natal and eThekwini – was due to “wilful neglect” during the years of corporate capture and corruption.

“This was documented almost 10 years ago in a report we wrote titled Slow Poison: Air pollution, public health and failing governance (page 24). As I re-read this, it is uncanny how this rings true even today.

“There are many reasons for this sorry state of affairs,” notes Euripidou. 

“I recently participated in a multi-stakeholder forum for the Vaal Triangle Airshed Priority Area (VTAPA) and learned that in the Vaal Triangle, there are no appointed air quality officers in any of the four VTAPA district municipalities!

“That would be a fundamental start – to appoint and fill these key positions in priority area municipalities. I imagine the same can be said for other municipalities where the system is failing.”

Department responds

Responding to queries from Daily Maverick, the DFFE has said that of the 130 government-owned monitoring stations, 36 are now operational and meeting the minimum data requirements, 55 are operational but not meeting the minimum data requirements and 39 are currently not operational.

Asked to quantify the primary reasons for failures at non-operational stations and those not meeting minimum requirements, the department said:

“The non-operational stations are due to limited resources and technical capacity in some provinces and municipalities.

“We can report a decrease in incidents of vandalism and theft as stations have been relocated to more secure sites. From January 2024 the national network has experienced only two reported vandalism incidents.

“In addition, the following interventions have taken place since the publication of PQ 3922 (questions in Parliament):

“Power back-up systems are currently being installed at stations in the air quality priority areas by the South African Weather Service and will be completed by end of May 2024. Additional security measures are also being implemented in the 15 priority area stations to further reduce vandalism in the SAWS stations.

“The department continues to pursue funding for a SAWS intervention to support 60 stations. Lastly, the department has increased the number of private stations providing air quality information to 66 stations.” DM


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