The most polluted cities on earth are not where you think

Air pollution in Delhi. Image: Getty.

Here's some cheerful news from the World Health Organisation (WHO): just 12 per cent of the world's city dwellers are breathing clean air. Around half, in fact, are exposed to air pollution at least two-and-a-half times safe levels, putting them at risk of what it reassuringly describes as "serious, long-term health problems".

Still thinking of going for that after work jog, are you?

All this may seem like a statement of the obvious to any Londoner who's been for a walk on a hazy day, and spent the next three hours trying to get the taste out of their mouth. Actually, though, the capital fares relatively well in the WHO’s most recent figures. The data published last week shows that Londoners face an average of 16µg/m3 of air pollution, a mere 1.6 times the recommended safe level. (All these figures are what is known as PM2.5, the number of micrograms of pollution particles smaller than 2.5 thousandths of a millimere across found in the average cubic metre of air. These particles are the worst for your health, for the faintly upsetting reason that they’re small enough to get right down into your lungs.)

The cities that suffer from really bad pollution, you'll be unsurprised to hear, are in Asia – though not, perhaps, in the places that you'd expect. The most polluted city in China is Lanzhou, which despite posting a terrifying sounding average of 71µg/m3, still only made 36th place in the league table of shame.

The smoggiest cities of all, in fact, are to be found in South Asia. Pakistan takes four of the top 20 slots; India takes 13, including the top four. Topping the chart is Delhi, whose roads reportedly gain another half a million cars every year, and whose PM2.5 consequently clocks in at an average of 153µg/m3. For those keeping score, that's nine times as polluted as London, and 15 times safe levels. The air in Beijing, at a mere 56µg/m3, looks positively sweet by comparison.

The WHO compiles statistics on more than 1,600 cities. Here's the full list of the top 10:


Rank City

Annual mean PM2.5, µg/m3

1 Delhi, India 153
2 Patna, India 149
3 Gwalior, India 144
4 Raipur, India 134
5 Karachi, Pakistan 117
6 Peshwar, Pakistan 111
7 Rawalpindi, Pakistan 107
8 Khoramabad, Iran 102
9 Ahmedabad, India 100
10 Lucknow, India 96

 

To give you a sense of quite how far ahead of the pack Delhi is on this, here’s its pollution rate, compared to those of a few other major world cities.

This is clearly doing a tremendous amount of damage – but you'd be hard pressed to find any of the parties competing in India's recent election talking about it. For some days, in fact, Indian officialdom seemed in denial about the problem. A spokesman for the country's System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting & Research went as far as to dispute the WHO's figures for Delhi and Beijing, claiming that both should actually have been around the 110µg/m3 mark. "Delhi's air quality is better than Beijing in summer and much better in monsoon season," he added. "It is winter pollution in Delhi and sudden spikes – which is quite high as compared to Beijing – triggered by meteorology."

This seems just a tad complacent: the WHO also reckons that India has the worst death rates from chronic respiratory disease of any country in the world, not to mention the worst death rates from asthma. What’s more, the problem is getting steadily worse. According to a study in the Journal of Atmospheric Pollution Research, Delhi's poor quality air caused 11,394 deaths in 2000. A decade later, that figure stood at 18,229.

On Monday, Delhi's Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung belated established an official committee to find ways of tackling the issue. It’s a start. Improving the air quality of India's cities isn't going to be easy – but the first step to fixing anything is to admit that you have a problem.

 
 
 
 

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.