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AirPollutionAfrica web-min
Air pollution: the silent killer

An alliance of African and British experts are studying the growth of cities in East Africa in a bid to understand how to save lives at risk from air pollution – one of the biggest killers in urban Africa.

Led by the University of Birmingham, the international study looks at how rapid urbanisation in three African cities - Addis Ababa, Kampala and Nairobi impacts upon air quality.

‘A Systems Approach to Air Pollution in East Africa’ brings together leading UK and East African researchers in air pollution, urban planning, economic geography, public health, social sciences and development studies to provide a framework for improved air quality management in East African cities. 

Funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) through the East Africa Research Fund, the study aims to develop new ways of monitoring air pollution to gather evidence on the causes, consequences and levels of air pollution in African cities.

Dr Francis Pope, from the University of Birmingham, said: “Urban air pollution is one of the most pressing and under-studied challenges facing cities today. Exposure to air pollution is one of the biggest causes of premature death in urban Africa today.

“Exposure to this silent killer increases the risk of lung cancer, heart disease, bronchitis and many respiratory conditions. East Africa’s local governments need good quality, timely data to develop policies that deliver most impact in reducing pollution and preventing premature deaths.”

The 21st century has been called the first ‘urban’ century, with the UN estimating that 54% of the global population - around 3.8 billion people – were living in towns or cities in 2014. By 2050, some 66% are likely to be living in urban areas, with the highest rates of growth expected in low- and middle-income countries – including Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya.

Dr George Mwaniki, from the African Centre for Technology Studies (Nairobi Kenya), said: “This ambitious project brings together leading UK and East African researchers across a range of inter-linked research disciplines. The greatest opportunities to address air pollution are in rapidly urbanising areas and we’re aiming to work with East African cities to reduce air pollution and save lives.”

Air pollution presents a global problem - causing an estimated 5.5 million premature deaths worldwide - one in every ten total deaths. Given the lack of air quality data in low and middle income countries, local governments often struggle to understand how air pollution impacts on urban residents or factor air pollution concerns into urban planning. 

This challenge is particularly pressing in East African cities where population growth between 2015 and 2030 is expected to be substantial; for example, Addis Ababa’s population is projected to increase by 80%, Kampala’s 103% and Nairobi’s 82%.

In Africa, the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 indicated that air pollution was associated with an estimated 712,000 premature deaths (IHME, 2015) and had an associated economic cost of USD 215 billion (OECD, 2016). 

Taken together, in Ethiopia and Uganda outdoor and household air pollution risk factors lead to a greater number of premature deaths compared to unsafe water, unsafe sanitation and childhood underweight risk factors. 

Dr Avis added: “The next two decades present a window of opportunity to address air pollution in rapidly urbanising areas where the pattern of urban development is yet to be determined. It is in these urbanising areas where the greatest potential for African cities to reduce air pollution lies.”

He further explained that cities’ potential to tackle air pollution effectively relied on three factors: 

• improvements in planning and the prioritisation of a low carbon future; 

• advancements in and adoption of technologies that minimise air pollutants; and

• changes in behaviour, for example in energy consumption and transport usage.

The project brings together experts from a number of British and African universities, including the: Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, African Centre for Technology Studies, Ethiopian Public Health Institute, Kampala Capital City Authority, Ndejje University, Strathmore University, Ugandan National Roads Authority, University of Birmingham, University of Cardiff, University of Nairobi

• The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 5,000 international students from over 150 countries.
• Project Aims: ASAP applies a rigorous approach to diagnosing the integrated urbanisation challenges facing East African cities, with a focus on the development of a holistic diagnosis that places the causes and impacts of air pollution in the context of the city’s interlinked systems. It seeks to address the numerous development issues associated with poor air quality, and initiate a new framework for deconstructing cities, fostering a more liveable and sustainable urbanisation. Specifically, ASAP will deliver against the following overarching aims:

• study urbanisation trends and their impact on air quality;
• develop robust and cost appropriate approaches to monitoring air pollution;
• generate a holistic evidence base on the causes, consequences and levels of air pollution;
• identify and engage with locations and communities which are most vulnerable;
• identify social, environmental, policy and management measures to tackle air pollution;
• understand the dynamic political economies of focus cities and how these influence urban governance and air quality management;
• raise awareness of air pollution problems and impact policy uptake.