Death all around; then some more from the air we breathe

Monday March 01 2021

Traders block a road in Salgaa, Nakuru County on January 8, 2020, to protest against dust pollution in the area. PHOTO | CHEBOITE KIGEN | NMG

By The EastAfrican

A friend in an East African capital, that shall remain unnamed, recently had a spell of bad health. She feared she had contracted Covid-19, and took a test.

Her doctor tested for a few other possible illnesses, and got nothing. She had a smart doctor. He soon figured it was the quality of the air in the city, made worse by traces of the current Sahara dust storm. She got some medication, made some anti-dust moves, and was soon back to her chirpy self.

There are dozens of air quality apps out there, although a few countries like China censor them, so you don’t get an accurate bad picture.

I check mine, and there are areas of Nairobi and Kampala where I won’t step (except perhaps in these pandemic times where a face mask wouldn’t look suspicious or too judgemental). The air quality there is very bad.

If you look at global air quality reports for last year, most of the best performers were in Europe, the islands in the Pacific, and North America.

Asia was HORRIBLE, all brown.


Africa was a mixed picture, but among the 20 countries with the worst air pollution, African countries now showed up, making up nine of them.

There was one East African Community country on the list, Uganda, at number 18. In other words, among the dirty bunch, it was the cleanest.

You almost never hear anyone talk about it, but tracking studies report that air pollution causes about 780,000 premature deaths per year in Africa. The shocking thing about it, as one scientist observed, is that African mortality resulting from poor air quality is similar in scale to HIV/Aids mortality in the continent!

Air quality inequality is another of the items in the inequality basket that separates poorer and richer nations, but perhaps the one that flies lowest on the world’s radar.

Africa needs to pay attention to the destruction caused by air pollution. But, perhaps, even more so, the bleak future that is staring at us.

Take just one example. The continent still views things like electric cars with bemusement, and too many Africans still respond with derision online to stories about clean energy.

When a big car maker as Jaguar Land Rover announces it will start making only electric cars from 2025 and cities announce bans on fossil fuel vehicles, the dominant tendency is to argue that such actions aren’t relevant here.

It’s understandable, because just thinking about how most African countries would move to having even just as many charging points as petrol stations, gives one a migraine.

However, it is easy to see that as the richer nations abandon fossil fuel cars, we will buy them even cheaper second-hand, and have newer ones that are being discontinued being sold in Africa for knock-down prices.

By 2040 our roads will be choking with fossil fuel vehicles, very filthy air above, and more victims of air pollution in hospital beds or graveyards. The air quality inequality will be as wide as the Rift Valley. We could begin to avert that by taking action when our air quality apps show too much red or brown.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]