We can't ignore the air pollution crisis in Africa's fast-growing megacities

Another busy day in Lagos. Image: AFP/Getty.

Residents of London, Los Angeles and Beijing often complain about air pollution. And they’re right to – their concerns are backed by lots of data.

However, not all cities are measured as rigorously. Notably, the air quality in many African cities is almost completely unmonitored. By 2050, both Lagos and Kinshasa will exceed 30m people – shouldn’t we know more about pollution in this fast-growing part of the world?

The World Health Organisation calculates air quality is responsible for more than 500,000 deaths a year in Africa from both indoor and outdoor air pollution. To put this into perspective, around 11,000 people died in the recent Ebola epidemic.

Yet the WHO’s ability to make these estimates is limited, both by the lack of air measurements and the lack of medical studies linking pollution to deaths in Africa. It seems unlikely that the current air quality impact studies based on the populations of Los Angeles or London can be directly transferred to Lagos or Kinshasa.

London and Lagos have entirely different air quality problems. In cities such as London, it’s mainly due to the burning of hydrocarbons for transport – a complicated problem for sure, but one that can be addressed by tackling petrol usage through electric vehicles, car free zones, and so on.

A fire burns on a rubbish dump in Lome, Togo. Image: Nic Bothma / EPA.

African pollution isn’t like that. There is the burning of rubbish, cooking indoors with inefficient solid fuel stoves, millions of small diesel electricity generators, cars which have had the catalytic converters removed and petrochemical plants, all pushing pollutants into the air over the cities.

It’s not even obvious what source to tackle first. Compounds such as sulfur dioxide, benzene and carbon monoxide that haven’t been issues in Western cities for decades may be a significant problem in African cities. We simply don’t know.


Nature isn’t helping here either. Compounds such as hydrocarbons which may be inoffensive in themselves are emitted into the atmosphere, and a complex web of chemical reactions process them into harmful products such as ozone and aerosols. These reactions are driven by the sun, and Africa has that in spades.

Natural sources of harmful compounds also abound. Sahara sand storms can cloak cities with choking dust. Chemicals emitted by trees in Africa’s vast forested areas may magnify the impact of human emissions in the same way as they do in the southern US, and smoke from seasonal forest fires can drift over population centres.

The relative importance of these natural sources compared to the human sources, and even how we separate out the natural versus human, are hotly debated by scientists. How much of the forest burning we see is due to natural courses such as lightning strikes and how much is linked to agricultural practices? Again without improved observations it is hard to tell.

These air pollutants also harm vegetation and crops. In Asia it is estimated that around 10 per cent of the food crop is destroyed by pollutants. For Africa we’ve got no good idea. Firstly, because we don’t have the same controlled field experiments on Africa’s staple crops such as cassava or millet as we do for Europe and North America’s crops. Secondly because, if we know little about air quality in cities, we know even less about what is happening in agricultural areas.

Growing pains

The need to focus on air quality in Africa’s new megacities is the topic of a new paper, which I co-authored, in the journal Nature Climate Change. Not only is pollution in these cities killing local residents, we found these emissions may even be altering the climate along the coast of West Africa, leading to changes in the clouds and so potentially to rainfall with devastating effects.

Things aren’t going to get better any time soon. Half of the global population growth between 2015 and 2050 will occur in Africa, and the continent is becoming increasingly urbanised.

Economic development will put increased strain on resources. A 2012 OECD report suggests successes in dealing with other problems such as access to drinking water and malaria is likely to make air quality the dominant environmental risk for premature deaths globally by 2030, if it isn’t already. Africa will not be far behind.

Scientists can help. The latest generation of satellites is providing high-resolution information about these pollutants on an unprecedented scale, and cheap new sensors can monitor the composition of the air over cities.

Couple this with the revolution in big data and the decades of research that has been undertaken in North American, European and now Asian cities and we should soon be able to understand the air quality problems of African cities.

And once we’ve understood the problem, science will be able to suggest solutions. Then it will be up to African cities to implement changes needed to prevent the deaths of thousands of their citizens.The Conversation

Mathew Evans is professor of atmospheric chemistry 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.