Air Pollution: a Health and Economic Disaster Waiting to Happen

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Pollution was the running theme during the United Nations Environment Assembly 3, back in early December at the United Nations Environment Programme grounds in Nairobi. Photo|GEOFFREY KAMADI.

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Taking an early morning jog in the streets of Nairobi has recently opened my eyes to the very real dangers posed by the deteriorating air quality in the city. I have come to notice that the phlegm coughed out in the shower following my early morning ritual is becoming darker and darker with an increasing amount of dust particles.

Then my eyes will smart and the voice grow hoarse for a good many minutes well after my early morning run. And it is not like I am out there for the entire day. My jogging session lasts just over one-and-a-quarter hours, taken for only three days a week, never mind the fact that it is done at 5am, when fewer cars and people are in the streets.

Then it occurs to me: what about those individuals lining busy roads hawking or vending stuff exposed to very thick traffic for hours on end, for five or more days every week? After all, I am only out for a very brief period of time early on in the day.

 A Major Concern

What’s happening to the air quality in Kenya, mainly due to the increasing number of vehicles on our roads, is becoming a major concern.

The situation could not be more pressing given that the country is yet to begin monitoring the particulate matter, or PM( microscopic solid or liquid particles suspended in the air,) in the air.

Particles smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter (the human hair is 70 micrometres in diameter) can get into the lungs and some may even find their way into the blood stream, becoming a health hazard.

What this means is that the country appears less prepared to forestall health and economic dangers that come with increased air pollution.

The Economic Survey of 2017 Report indicate that respiratory diseases of which air pollution is a major contributor, is now the leading cause of morbidity. According to this report, diseases of the respiratory system accounted for 39 per cent of all diseases reported in 2016.

It is also estimated that 48,300 Kenyans die annually due to complications attributed to air pollution. Over eight million Kenyans living in major cities and towns, are also exposed to harmful emissions from motorised vehicles, industries and use of traditional fuels.

A recent study by the University of Nairobi, shows that the economic loss related to illnesses and deaths in Kenya per year resulting from air pollution is 115 million shillings ($ 1.15million). And the UN Economic Commission of Africa has estimated that the cost of air pollution in a number of African cities can be as high as 2.7 per cent of GDP.

Other available research shows that an increase in air pollution exacerbates the risk of developing disease. There are other studies that strongly link diabetes with air pollution.

Even so, the country remains ill prepared to deal with the situation. Indeed, among the African countries listed by the WHO in 2013 that monitor particulate matter, Kenya is not one of them. These countries include Algeria, Botswana, Ghana, Madagascar, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

When all is said and done however, the issue is not accorded the seriousness it so deserves by the media. It therefore follows that the need to highlight the dangers associated with increased particulate matter that Kenyans are constantly being exposed to could never be more urgent.

This is especially the case given that the average number of vehicles imported in Kenya is 200,000 per year. This number is set to double in the next six years.

What this means is that outdoor pollution by these vehicles is set to increase dramatically, with a corresponding rise in health problems. And this is beside the traffic jam menace experienced by Kenyans.

Traffic jams cost Nairobi City County approximately 30-50 million shillings ($ 0.300-0.5 million) daily in fuel consumption, manpower time wasted and cancelled business appointments.

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Dong Jin, an Associate Director of IBM Research in China, making a presentation about how technology is being used to tackle the serious problem of air pollution in Beijing, at a break-away session of the United Nations Environment Assembly 3, in December. Photo| GEOFFREY KAMADI

Steps Being Taken:

The government of Kenya, through The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources is putting measures in place to deal with this challenge. For instance the Air Quality Regulations of 2014 and the Climate Change Act was gazatted in 2016.

In addition, the Ministry has initiated a process of developing a national air quality management strategy and Action Plan by putting in place an inter-agency committee with different roles and responsibilities in air quality management.

At another level, measures to address air quality in the Third Medium Plan of the Vision 2030 have been proposed. The Plan will endeavour to move the economy to achieve a 10 per cent growth rate target by 2022.

All these effort requires coordinated action by all involved. After all, Article 42 of Kenya’s constitution stipulates the right to a clean environment for everybody.

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