Your city could be exporting deadly air pollution – here’s how

Probably not quite this obviously: Fos-sur-Mer, southern France. Image: Getty.

Air pollution is often seen as a local problem requiring local and regional solutions. Karachi, London, Lagos, Mexico City and Paris are just a few of the world’s cities grappling with poor air quality. With city-dwellers increasingly being asked to ditch the car – especially if it’s diesel – and use greener modes of transport, it’s easy to forget that air is also mobile. As a result, there’s very little attention being paid to the impact of cross-border air pollution on human health and well-being. The Conversation

Globally, air pollution caused by microscopic fine particles (PM₂.₅) kills 3.5m people each year. These particles can easily enter the respiratory tract. They rank fifth worldwide among all risks to health after high blood pressure, smoking and diet. Breathing filthy air can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and affect mental health.

And it is the vulnerable in society who suffer the most, with 300m children currently breathing in toxic air. Indoor and outdoor air pollution, together with second-hand smoke, causes 570,000 deaths in children under five years of age each year, due to respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

The movement of air pollutants from transport and agricultural activities in one country can affect the air quality in another. Such as the smoke from Indonesian forest fires which has caused a toxic haze to descend over parts of Malaysia and Singapore. Another example is the atmospheric brown cloud – a transnational air pollution phenomenon which contains aerosols such as soot and dust that poses risks to human health and food security, especially in Asia.

Exporting emissions

Cross-border air pollution has been an issue for some time: in the 1970-80s, the UK was nicknamed the “dirty man of Europe” for belching out industrial sulphur emissions, which contributed to acid rain in Europe – a reputation that the Greens fear will be regained after Brexit.

But it’s only recently that the scale of the air pollution effects of international trade has been assessed, with one study suggesting that around 400,000 premature deaths occurred in 2007 in a different region of the world than the one in which the air pollutants were emitted.

Goods and services produced in one region for use by another region are responsible for 22 per cent of air pollution-related deaths worldwide (762,400). In particular, Chinese particle emissions were responsible for 64,800 premature deaths in other regions, including over 3,000 deaths in Western Europe and the US. By contrast, Chinese products bought in Western Europe and the US are linked to over 100,000 deaths in China in one year.

International trade has seen many developed countries transferring their manufacturing abroad, in order to take advantage of cheap labour and lax environmental standards in often less wealthy nations. As a result, air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, has effectively been exported to developing countries.


Making the switch

So, while murky grey images of smog smothered Beijing or New Delhi may prompt others to ask why they don’t clean up their act, it’s important to remember that these cities are shouldering an enormous manufacturing burden, as much of the world’s goods and services are outsourced to China and India.

There is now a need for governments to switch from calculating greenhouse gas emissions based on production to one based on consumption of goods and services. This has important implications for global climate and air mitigation policies because as much as 20 per cent to 25 per cent of overall carbon dioxide emissions come from the production of goods and services which are traded internationally.

Although there has been success in achieving better air quality over the past the six decades, this doesn’t erase the need to face up to big global environment challenges. Cities are responsible for around 70 per cent of global greenhouse gases. While carbon dioxide has warming influences on the climate in the long term, short-lived climate pollutants such as black carbon (a primary part of particulate matter), methane and ozone have warming influences on the climate in the near-term. Local action, such as banning diesel cars, addresses both air and climate pollutants. This can achieve immediate effects by reducing near-term warming and improving air quality levels.

There are several international conventions to regulate air pollution and related issues. But for now, there’s no coherent legal framework which aims to protect the atmosphere. This has led to calls for a new Law of the Atmosphere to provide effective cooperation on air pollution and climate change at regional and global scales. As it stands, the likelihood of such a law gaining support is low, given the climate change scepticism exhibited by powerful world leaders such as presidents Trump and Putin.

Everyone has the right to clean air. But air pollution requires no visas, and its devastating impact can be felt far from the source. No longer can the leaders of developed nations shy away from the fact that their citizens’ consumption and lifestyle choices have a significant impact on people in others part of the world. As consumers, we have the power and the responsibility to demand better environmental and social standards – so we can all breathe life, wherever we live.

Gary Haq is SEI Associate in the Stockholm Environment Institute at the 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.