Naming and shaming the world’s most polluted cities is a terrible idea

Daily life in the markets of Onitsha, Nigeria, in 2005. The city has just been named the world's most polluted. Image: Getty.

New data on urban air quality from the World Health Organisation recently led Onitsha, Nigeria to be given the title of “most polluted city” in the world. International media also singled out the “most polluted city” in their region, and highlighted countries such as India which had several cities in the “top five”.

Of course, it’s important to highlight cities where pollution is a big concern. Air pollution is a “silent killer”, which can increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases such as asthma. Often, poorer and more vulnerable groups, such as children and the elderly suffer these effects the most.

But this “name and shame” approach risks being both inaccurate and misleading. For one thing, the pollutants that cause poor air quality can vary significantly between cities. Saying one city is more polluted than another is a bit like comparing apples and oranges – particularly when it comes to developing countries. To understand why, we need to dig down further into the data.

Attention to detail

For its analysis, the WHO looked at levels of two types of particulate matter – PM₁₀ (which has a mean aerodynamic diameter of ten micrometres) and PM₂.₅ (which has a mean aerodynamic diameter of 2.5 micrometres) – for 796 cities from 2008 to 2013. PM₁₀ and PM₂.₅ include pollutants such as sulphates, nitrates and black carbon (soot), which penetrate deep into the lungs and into the cardiovascular system, posing the greatest risks to human health.

Unsurprisingly, the WHO analysis shows higher levels of urban air pollution in low and middle-income regions such as Africa, Latin America and South-East Asia. In these areas, a lack of funding and inadequate capacity to monitor air quality make it difficult to effectively reduce air pollution.

Based on PM₁₀ data, Onitsha, Nigeria topped the list in Africa, while Bamedna, Tanzania, had the highest PM₂.₅ levels. In the Americas, Santa Gertrudes, Brazil, had the worst PM₁₀ pollution, and Lima, Peru, topped the list for PM₂.₅. In the Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia (which are clustered together in the database), Peshawar, Pakistan, is number one for PM₁₀, and Zabol, Iran, for PM₂.₅.

And these examples focus only on particulate matter. The rankings would be more diverse if other common pollutants – such as nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and ozone – were included in the database.

Apples and oranges

There are several other reasons why the air quality of different cities cannot be directly compared. For example, different seasons have unique meteorological conditions and activities, which may cause dips or spikes in pollution. For instance, a city will have greater pollutant concentrations in a dry year than in a wet year, and higher levels of particulate matter at times when agricultural refuse is burned. So using data for one season to extrapolate an annual mean pollution level could skew the results.

Burn off. Image: CIFOR/Flickr/creative commons.

What’s more, some cities will not make the “most polluted” list simply because they do not monitor air quality – the case in some African cities. And even cities that do monitor pollution levels will have different numbers of monitoring stations in different sites. For example, the stations may be concentrated in less-polluted, residential areas in one city, and on busy roads with high pollution in another. A minimum number of monitoring stations is needed to obtain spatially representative data.

The methods used to monitor different pollutants and analyse the data may also differ, requiring adjustments to make the data comparable. Finally, quality assurance and control of monitoring data, selection of instruments, calibration and documented performance in one city cannot be compared with a city of unknown data quality.

Only by considering these variations can we accurately compare cities within and between countries: otherwise, any rankings will be misleading. There are also political consequences: if city officials fear being “named and shamed”, they have a strong incentive to hide their data or under-report pollution. The controversy over Beijing’s air quality data highlights these risks.

Clean air is a basic human right, and we urgently need to act to reduce air pollution – particularly in developing countries. Rankings and lists which single out the “worst cities” do not advance this cause: they only serve to misrepresent the data and politicise a public health issue.

If we are to save lives now and protect future generations, we need to resist the clickbait headlines, and be more thoughtful and precise when talking about urban air quality.The Conversation

Gary Haq is senior research associate in sustainable development, and Dieter Schwela a research associate, at the University of YorkBjarne Sivertsen is associate research director at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

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.