Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Air Pollution in Kampala

From Kampala Daily Monitor, June 7th, 2011


The number of respiratory tract infections in Kampala has soared in the last five years – a warning that air pollution is rapidly becoming a serious environmental threat.

Several studies have linked mounting respiratory tract infections such as asthma and chronic bronchitis to air pollution. The effects can be extremely serious. Research shows a connection between air pollution and lung cancer, and suggests it may contribute to childhood mortality.

Mulago Hospital, for instance, admitted about 2,500 people with asthma in 2009/2010, up from 1,899 the previous two years. People who suffer the condition have little doubt that the reason is Kampala’s dirty air. “When I am in Gulu, I rarely use my inhaler and worry less about taking recaution, but when in Kampala my attacks are very frequent and I have to keep replacing my inhaler three times a year,” says Alice Oneka, a 24 year-old fashion designer.

Ms Oneka has relocated her garment shop from Namuwongo, a Kampala suburb with many industries, to her home in Mengo, where she feels there is less dust and pollution. According to a recent World Bank report titled: “Sub-Saharan Refinery Project Health Study”, the prevalence rate of asthma in children 8-13 is 26 per cent in Uganda. By contrast, it was just 10 per cent in South Africa.

Air pollution causes a range of problems that people take lightly but can lead to serious health threats over time, says Mr John C. Ssempebwa, the head of Disease Control and Environment Health at Makerere University School of Public Health. According to Mr Ssempebwa, the health complications include chest pains, sleep disorder, stress and abnormal heart beats.

Old cars
At the heart of this problem lies Kampala’s growing fleet of aging vehicles, which emit dangerous gases. The World Bank study found that vehicles contributed the highest volume of air pollutants in Uganda, followed by domestically burned wood and charcoal and industrial sources ranked third.

The problem is made worse by Kampala’s mounting incidence of traffic jams. A 1991 study by the Makerere University Department of Geography estimated that vehicles burned 12,270,000 litres of fuel unnecessarily due to congestion. That was the equivalent of Shs4,564 million in 1991. The study has not been updated, but the figures are certain to be much worse given the sharp increase in the number of vehicles – now estimated at 7.3 per cent per year – and the soaring price of fuel.

Dr Paul Isolo Mukwaya, a lecturer at Makerere University Department of Geography, says the problem is especially serious in Kampala because of the large number of old vehicles whose engines can no longer fully burn fuel, but instead emit unburnt fuel in form of soot and harmful gases.

Data from the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) reveals that most cars imported into the country are 10 or more years old. To make matters worse, the old vehicles rarely receive routine maintenance once they are on the road. The lack of maintenance is especially a problem for taxis, which constitute a substantial portion of vehicles in Kampala.

The lack of maintenance is hardly surprising. Mini-bus operators rarely own the vehicles they drive, and are more interested in making profits than keeping the vehicles in good mechanical condition.

The air pollution problem it is almost certain to get worse. The National Development Plan 2010-2015 estimates that Uganda’s population will increase to 60 million in the next 22 years – almost double its current size. Combined with economic growth, that almost ensures that the number of vehicles on the roads – and with them, the amount of pollutants pumped into the air – will soar.

For now, the government is hardly prepared to tackle this problem. To date, there is no comprehensive scientific data on the state of air quality in the country or in Kampala, not even at the National Environment Management Authority (Nema).

Air quality standards
There is also no national air quality standards. Nema has barely started drafting air quality standards for the country. Mr Grace Birikadde, the environment audit and monitoring officer at Nema, says efforts to draft the national air quality standards were halted so that the newly-emerging oil sector could play a role in the process.

“The oil sector being a potential contributor to air quality, the process of drafting the national air quality standards was halted with a view of comprehensively capturing, analysing and incorporating air quality issues of oil and gas into the national air quality standards,” Mr Birikadde explains.

Some steps could be taken even before air quality standards are adopted. Environmentalists have urged government to invest in less air polluting public transport like buses and encouraging non-motorised means of transport like walking. The government has promised buses for the past 10 years but has not delivered them yet.

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