June 21, 2018

Bridging the gap: Air quality in logistically difficult environments

Credit: Modernghana.com

Air quality to simply put can be referred to as “the condition of the air”. This can further be treated as good (air quality is satisfactory and poses little health concern); moderate (poses health concern for people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution); unhealthy for sensitive groups (health concern for older adults, children, active people and those with heart or lung diseases may experience health effects); unhealthy (everyone may experience health effect); very unhealthy (health concern for everyone).

The World Health Organization (WHO) described air pollution as “the world’s major environmental health risk” (WHO, 2014). The World Bank Group (WBG) in a 2016 report revealed that “air pollution kills 6 times more than malaria and 4 times more than HIV/AIDs.” Also, “520 million children in Africa do not breathe clean air” (UNICEF, 2016)

In developing countries and particularly in the context of Africa, the subject of air quality is less treated due to the human capital involved and the cost of instrumentation coupled with mandatory routine calibration and maintenance of the sparsely distributed air quality monitoring equipment. In Ghana for example, there are only 16 monitoring stations limited to Accra with a population of about 2.5 million people. Interestingly, not all these monitoring stations are functional and data on air quality is collected on a weekly basis through the gravimetric method which is subject to human error. This method is prone to some errors but still used widely worldwide. It might be better to focus on other aspects such as a  temporal resolution due to a weekly sampling. We do not have information on how the concentrations change over a day.

Additionally, complex and multiple emission sources such as open burning, exhaust fumes from increasing vehicle fleet and vehicles operating without catalytic converters, smoke from biomass usage for energy generation in low-income households, windstorms from dusty environments and unpaved roads to mention but a few are characteristics of Africa. This therefore requires comprehensive, rigorous and routine studies with emerging cutting-edge state-of-the-art technologies to better understand the drivers of health impacts and possibly develop better mitigation options.

This implies that we must take actions to fully understand the quality of the air we breathe. These actions may be from individuals, governmental agencies/ ministries, non-profits, the academia and air quality professionals.

The thoughts expressed in the following paragraphs consider four approaches that government and relevant bodies could take.

Developing reliable transportation System and reduce congestion in the cities

Studies have shown that reliable transportation systems that are eco-friendly can reduce air pollution. Majority of cars used in Africa are second hand imported from the developed countries with most of these cars being very old. Nonetheless, people continue to give preference to owning these cars due to the absence of other means for transportation.

The question I ask at this very stage is when Europe abandons diesel cars, where will it be dumped? Are we also going to consider electric cars? How do we keep them running in an environment with energy challenges?

Interestingly, our regulatory institutions are not fully resourced to regularly test the cars on our roads; most of them operate without catalytic converters. leading to the release of  NO2, a respiratory sensitizer which is usually emitted from diesel engines.

African leaders should embark on a robust and reliable transportation infrastructure/ system. This will not only reduce the number of cars on our roads but congestion in the cities/ metropolitans. Imagine a rail service from Accra to Tamale within 45 minutes. Many people who live in Accra now but from Tamale may opt for this service to and from work.

Alternative source of energy

One other aspect to consider when talking about air quality is energy source. Oil and gas exploration activities is one of the main anthropogenic causes of air pollution; both from production and usage.

Ghana, just like the rest of Africa should consider renewable energy sources which does not pose harm to our environment and public health when best practices are observed. The sunlight, wind and waste can be used appropriately to generate energy for households and even industries. A solar farm on the vast plains in Ghana can contribute significantly to bridge the energy gap.

Integrated policy approach

It is established that air pollution and climate change are intrinsically linked. This implies that an integrated policy approach and collaboration must be employed to combat the two. Policies on combating air pollution should not be developed separately but alongside climate change policies which will create room for trade-offs.

For example reducing oxides of nitrogen (NOx) pollution in the atmosphere can lead to reduction of tropospheric O3, a greenhouse gas which contributes to global warming (climate change). The agencies/ departments working on air quality and climate change should work hand in hand. (Also there is the need for coordination between urban department, municipal department that takes of civic issues such as waste management, public health department and others that are relevant)

GHEPA should collaborate with the academia/ academic institutions

One of the key areas to consider is that the Ghana Heath Economics and Policy Association (GHEPA) should as a matter of urgency collaborate with local and international academic institutions as well as non-profits to undertake projects in the context of air quality management (AQM). This will not only enable the under-resourced GHEPA to undertake AQM projects but also to help the agency explore emerging technologies in the field of AQM and to develop data mining tools to analyse AQM data.

This collaboration will ease the pressure on the GHEPA and to effectively communicate its findings on AQ to the general public. For example, University of Ghana (UG) Legon has started employing low-cost sensors to understand their performance in the country which the GHEPA can take advantage of.

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