How dirty air has increased by 40% in five-year stretch

Traffic on Jinja Road in Kampala recently. Exhaust fumes from vehicles and industries are some of the major causes of air pollution. PHOTO/ABUBAKER LUBOWA. 

What you need to know:

  • To decisively address the problem, experts have proposed that the underlying issues of indoor and outdoor air pollution be tackled.

The rise in levels of air pollution in the country as a result of urbanisation, industrialisation and shifts in energy production and consumption has doubled pollution-related deaths, various studies have shown.

Experts are now advising that quick measures—such as real-time data informing choices, paying attention to pollution forecasts, wearing face masks, minimising outdoor activities in hazardous zones and holidaying in cleaner places—be strongly considered to significantly reduce health risks.


To decisively address the problem, experts have proposed that the underlying issues of indoor and outdoor air pollution be tackled.
An assessment of the daily average air pollution levels in Kampala from empirical evidence of 2018 to 2020—and the comparison of the computed number with the 2016 World Health Organisation (WHO) report—indicates that there has been a 40 percent increase in air pollution. WHO’s 2016 report relied on air quality data collected between 2010 and 2015.

This computation was specifically for 2.5-micrometre particulate matter (PM2.5), a type of pollutant which has devastating effects on the body.
Uganda is now able to take accurate readings of its levels of pollution, thanks to the tireless efforts of an air quality research initiative at Makerere University, AirQo. 
The machines for measuring air quality are majorly in Kampala Metropolitan Area, and a few other major towns such as Jinja. 
Recent installations in places, including Fort Portal and Tororo, show that limited funding from the government has hampered expansion plans.

The data sourced from the United States Embassy air quality monitoring system in Kampala indicates that the average daily level of PM2.5 was 132 micrograms per cubic metre (μg/m3) in 2018. This is several times higher than the previous high for Ugandan urban areas at 80μg/m3 reported by WHO in 2016. The WHO tolerable level is 15μg/m3.
In 2019—a year after the ban on the importation of vehicles older than 15 years kicked in—the average daily level of pollution was 134μg/m3. This represented a slight increase. In 2020, the statistics showed a slight decline in the daily average at 133μg/m3.
The Covid-19-induced restrictions on motorised movements and human activities are believed to have been responsible for the drop. 

Gold standard research elsewhere and satellite imagery showed that the coronavirus shutdown temporarily slashed air pollution levels. Nitrogen dioxide produced from car engines and other industrial processes for one plunged as global cities entered into lockdowns. A study by AirQo estimated that levels of particulate matter fell by up to 40 percent in selected parts of Uganda, including the capital.

A body of hard information, however, indicates that air quality receded as lockdowns eased. This also proved to be the case with Uganda. 
Fluctuations in the country are, however, not just down to the pandemic. There are marked variations in levels of pollution throughout the year. January, February, July and August show some of the highest levels of pollution in the hazardous zone.
There are also variations in levels among urban areas, with the most recent report from AirQo indicating that Busega, a Kampala City centre and Kira areas in Wakiso District, are some of the most polluted in the Kampala Metropolitan Area.

Prof Engineer Banomugisha, the AirQo lead, said even when the pollution levels reduce, they are largely in moderate and unhealthy zones. 
AirQo has 120 locally manufactured air quality monitoring machines. These are installed in Kampala and other urban areas.
Mr Deo Okure, an air quality specialist at AirQo, told Saturday Monitor that there are specific patterns for urban spaces.
“They tend to experience higher levels of pollution because of the activity patterns within the areas. For example, within Kampala City centre, there is a high mobility pattern from the vehicles we drive and there are a lot of activities that raise the particulate levels,” he said.

“Also, you have to realise that pollution is not only because of localised activity, but there can also be imported pollution. Busega is quite open and this makes it prone to imported pollution (blown in by wind). So it becomes some sort of a sink where pollution is deposited but also, there are local activities going on,” he said.
Mr Arnold Waiswa Ayazika, the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) director of compliance, on the other hand, said pollution levels in Kampala have been projected to worsen further. 

Health consequences
The rise has seen air pollution-related deaths double in four years from 70 per 100,000 deaths to 155 per 100,000 deaths recorded, according to the WHO reports for 2012 and 2016, respectively.
Local scientists are yet to do a study to determine the correlation between air pollution and deaths. But in Africa, a report published in late 2021 in The Lancet—a scientific journal—indicates that air pollution was responsible for 1·1 million deaths in 2019 alone.
“Household air pollution accounted for 697,000 deaths and ambient air pollution for 394,000,” the report reads, adding: “Ambient air pollution-related deaths increased from 361,000 in 2015, to 383,000 in 2019, with the greatest increases in the most highly developed countries. The majority of deaths due to ambient air pollution are caused by non-communicable diseases.”

Dr Bruce Kirenga, the director of Makerere University Lung Institute, said Uganda is one of the countries most affected by air pollution. Her capital—Kampala—is the fifth most polluted city in Africa.
“Air pollution exposure can affect almost all body organ systems, but the respiratory and cardiovascular systems are the most affected. In the respiratory system, air pollution is associated with irritation problems such as coughing, wheezing, hoarse voice and sneezing and respiratory diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, tuberculosis, Covid-19, lung fibrosis and lung cancer,” he said.

“Stroke, hypertension, myocardial ischemia and infarction (heart attacks), heart failure, and arrhythmias are the main cardiovascular diseases associated with air pollution. Air pollution is also associated with neuropsychiatric problems such as aggression and anxiety, antisocial behaviours, hyperactivity and criminality,” he added.
Dr Kirenga also highlighted that other effects are low birth weight, eye problems and decreased cognitive ability in children.

Dr Ivan Kimuli, a physician at Makerere University Lung Institute, however, said: “In relation to asthma, [one of the diseases triggered or exacerbated by air pollution], there are 132,000 people dying annually from it in the country.”
He added that their recent survey put the prevalence of asthma at 11 percent, which is an increase from an estimated prevalence of eight percent in 2003.

Guaranteeing safety

So how can one stay safe? “At the household level, when you are cooking, the cooking area should be well ventilated. Open your windows when you are cooking. You can also download AirQo air quality app to alert you on pollution levels,” Mr Okure of AirQo said.
“You shouldn’t be going to areas with high levels of pollution. You stay home with your family and don’t worsen the condition by driving through the area. Only move if you must. If your car is not moving, you turn off the engine to minimise pollution,” he added.
Dr Kimuli says there are no quick measures, especially since air is everywhere and it keeps moving. 

“We have to address the root causes. We have to reduce air pollution. If you are working in an environment which is polluted, like industries which have a large production of particulate matter, there are durations you should work in such places [and retire]. Wearing masks can protect, but it is not the solution,” he said.
Mr Okure said: “At the institutional level, you need to have an enabling policy. We need to tarmac our roads, we need to regulate our industries, and we need to raise awareness about air pollution.”

Nema is also pushing for adjusting the ban on importation of old vehicles from 15 years to eight years. It also intends to fill gaps in the regulation of emissions from industries.
Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) director of public health says they are also addressing gaps in garbage collection, which drives open burning of wastes, reducing emissions from vehicles by introducing mass transportation and encouraging cycling.



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