“92% the world’s urban population now breathe toxic air”: so what can we do about it?

Smog over New Delhi, 2014. Image: Getty.

Beijing, London, Mexico City, New Delhi and Paris are among the cities that have drawn attention for their dangerously high air pollution levels in 2016 – but they’re not alone. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed that 92 per cent of the world’s urban population now live in cities where the air is toxic.

In India, a study found that 41 Indian cities of more than a million people faced bad air quality on nearly 60 per cent of the total days monitored. Three cities – Gwalior, Varanasi and Allahabad – didn’t even manage one good air quality day.

Over on the African continent, dirty air was identified as the cause of 712,000 premature deaths – that’s more than unsafe water (542,000), childhood malnutrition (275,000) or unsafe sanitation (391,000).

In Europe, it was found that around 85 per cent of the urban population are exposed to harmful fine particulate matter (PM2.5) which was responsible for an estimated 467,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries.

It’s not all bad news though: 74 major Chinese cities have seen the annual average concentrations of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, decrease since 2014 although the Chinese government’s “war on air pollution” has received criticism.

Health risk

The health impacts of air pollution are well documented; but now, new evidence suggests a link between air pollution and dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, with exposure to poor air quality equivalent to passively smoking six cigarettes a day. Not only that, toxic air has been blamed for more road traffic crashes from pollutants distracting drivers, causing watery eyes and itchy noses.

It is often poor, young, old and disadvantaged people who are worst affected by poor air quality. Air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 600,000 children under the age of five every year. Ethnic minorities are more likely to be exposed to high pollution levels than other groups. In London, black, African and Caribbean people were exposed to higher illegal nitrogen dioxide levels (15.3 per cent) because of where they lived, compared to the rest of the city’s population (13.3 per cent).

Air pollution also affects regional climate, which impacts on future water availability and ecosystem productivity. Black carbon is a particulate matter created through the burning of fossil fuels (such as diesel) and biomass. As well as effecting human health, it is responsible for glacial melting in the Himalayan and Tibetan Plateau. Black carbon deposits on snow and ice darkens surfaces, resulting greater absorption of sunlight and faster melting.

Black snow. Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr/creative commons.

Research from the World Bank estimated that the global economic cost of air pollution-related deaths to be US$225 billion in lost labour income (in 2013) and more than $5trn in welfare losses. The OECD predicted that global air pollution-related healthcare costs will increase from $21bn in 2015 to $176bn in 2060. And by 2060, the global annual number of lost working days that affect labour productivity is projected to triple to reach 3.7bn – it is currently around 1.2bn.

Air creative

A number of creative ways of understanding and addressing the air pollution problem were seen throughout 2016. In London, racing pigeons took to the skies equipped with pollution sensors and a Twitter account, to raise awareness of the capital’s illegally dirty air. Amsterdam carried on the bird theme, with smart bird houses that light up to show the air quality status, while offering free Treewifi.

Other innovations included the development of an inexpensive over-the-counter inhaler that protects the lungs against air pollution, and the installation of a seven-metre tall tower in Beijing, which sucks pollutants from filthy air.

Raising awareness of the causes and effects of air pollution is important, as we are not only victims, but also contributors to the problem. There have also been many air quality monitoring projects to engage citizens on air pollution issues such as “curious noses”, which saw Antwerp residents measure traffic pollution and “clean air zones” in North Carolina, US, where individuals measured particulate matter in real time.

We’ve also seen awareness lead to action, when the demand for clean air led to ClientEarth taking legal action against government failure to tackle illegal air pollution. Meanwhile, artists in London produced their own campaigns, aimed at warning young people about the effects of poor air quality.


Change is in the air

This year the UN’s New Urban Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Breathe Life Campaign called for action to improve urban air quality and deliver social, environmental and economic co-benefits.

Meanwhile, Paris, Mexico City, Madrid and Athens have pledged to remove all diesel vehicles from their streets by 2025, while promoting walking and cycling infrastructure. In Asia, a city certification programme is being piloted to encourage cities to make advances in air quality management.

If anything, 2016 has showed us that poor air quality is a scourge of the developed and developing world alike – and that it requires immediate action. The evidence is clear: we need to clean up our act, to protect human health and reap the benefits of clean air for all.The Conversation

Gary Haq is a senior research associate in sustainable development and human ecology at University of York.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.