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Deaths in Africa due to outdoor air pollution have increased by nearly 60% in the last two decades. The financial impact is also unmistakable; the World Bank estimates that the cost of air pollution in Sub-Saharan Africa was 3.8% of gross domestic product growth in 2013, around $114bn. Plastic waste is not far behind in terms of its adverse environmental impact; recent studies have shown about 3,500 particles of plastic per square kilometer exist in the sea off the southern African coast. Besides destroying marine life, a substantial amount of this gets channeled into the human body through the seafood we consume.
Furthermore, in Africa, air pollution and plastic waste problems often go hand in hand. The United Nations (UN) estimates that only 10% of rubbish in Africa makes it to dumps, with the rest left to rot in communities or burned in acrid bonfires, adding to air pollution in the process. The problem we are dealing with is appalling and calls for immediate action. How is Africa dealing with this crisis?
The first step to addressing the issue is to have a holistic measurement of the cost of air pollution. The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) approach has emphasized the need for health agencies to consider the important health burden of air pollution and called for ministries of environment and health to work together to deal with this challenge. Efforts are already underway to link exposure and health impacts to pollution sources and devise policy actions.
The good news is that there is domestic funding available for countries to monitor air quality and reduce smog by restricting government investments that subsidize fossil fuel consumption. The World Health Organization (WHO) and its partners have launched the BreatheLife campaign to increase awareness. As part of the campaign, cities are encouraged to share data and solutions.
A boost is also being given to better monitoring of pollution levels and better communication when the situation becomes dangerous. Such alerts can put pressure on governments to step in and take corrective action.
Due to increased pressure to reduce carbon footprints, companies in Africa are introducing new or upgraded air pollution control technologies. Checks are being made on the main causes of air pollution, including industrial emissions, savannah fires and biomass burning. The Air Pollution Information Network in Africa (APINA) is instrumental in bringing about these welcome changes. South Africa is currently leading the charge among the African countries making the transition to a low carbon economy. It has recently passed the much-awaited Carbon Tax Bill aimed at penalizing companies that emit high levels of carbon into the atmosphere.
Other countries are also making gradual progress. Countries such as Senegal, Ghana and Ivory Coast promote and subsidize the use of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), rather than charcoal/biomass fuels, for cooking purposes. The role of international agencies like the WHO and the UN is also crucial. They are already engaging with local governments and trying to increase awareness, but much remains to be done.
Let us now turn to the second pressing issue: plastic waste. How is Africa managing its plastic problem? According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Africa stands out as the continent where the largest number of countries instituted a total ban on the production and use of single-use plastic bags. Of the 25 African countries to have introduced national bans on plastic bags, more than half shifted into implementation between 2014 and 2017.
Throughout the continent, countries have mobilized under the campaign “Beat Plastic Pollution” and have devised innovative domestic solutions to find alternatives. Some countries like Kenya, Rwanda and Morocco have flat-out banned single-use plastic bags, forcing businesses and consumers to use alternatives, and countries like Zimbabwe have targeted styrofoam with bans. An initiative called “Project Butterfly” is helping tackle the problem of plastic waste in the townships of South Africa. Introduced in 2017 in Tembisa, Johannesburg and now also active in Durban, Project Butterfly works with non-profit organizations and local communities to tackle poor waste management through education, clean-ups and innovation-focused initiatives. With regard to plastic waste management, the overall scenario is quite encouraging.
Air pollution and the plastic waste problem often go hand in hand in Africa. These are two pressing issues that require immediate attention to guarantee a healthy quality of life to African citizens. The national governments need to extensively engage with international agencies to achieve this end. While there is much that remains to be done, we are certainly on the path to a cleaner, greener and sustainable environment.