The politics of urban air pollution in West Africa, public health and issues of environmental governance


By Abdoukarim Sanneh,
London, United Kingdom

Visiting West African cities such as Lagos, Accra, Dakar and Greater Banjul, what came to your notice is the deterioration of air quality in these cities. From Dakar to Greater Banjul area apart from dirty smell of fume from combustion, the scenery is clouds of black fumes hovering over the heads of impatient motorists. Car and van drivers blasting their horns, while pedestrians scurry on the rickety commercialised mini vans that carry up to two dozen manoeuvres between lanes are able to bypass the congestion. A recent report by the World Bank measuring the cost of air pollution globally, however, provides some insight into how congestion affects people’s health.

Outdoor air pollution which is referred to in Environmental Science literature as ambient air quality is a silent killer that is yet to notice as a public health and development issues that should be addressed. Daily reality of living in our African cities is exposure to dangerous unacceptable pollution which is similar to the story of Scottish witches in William Shakespeare literally tales of Macbeth “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and caldron bubble”. Following my recent visit in Gambia, as Environmental Policy and Panning Officer in Urban setting of London, the reason behind this article is to share knowledge about the drivers of air pollution in Urban Gambia, its impact on public health, regulatory regime at governmental and regional level and other wider undermining issues of environmental governance and corporate social responsibility.


Many Urban African cities are in the same position like in China and if African Governments do not regulate the current trend and pattern of Urban Air Pollution, it will be a disaster. Urbanisation in Africa is increasing rapidly and whilst there are many economic benefits from urbanisation, there are downsides of air pollution. Air pollution is a major environmental health issue. According to 2013 Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report titled the economic consequences of outdoor air pollution in Africa, it estimate that Air pollution in the continent cost about US $ 215 billion. With increasing population in all Sub Saharan Africa, our cities and economic opportunities, the trend of urbanisation comes with a fast growing car fleet too. Traffic related air pollution is becoming is a major pollution problem in Africa.

Any combustion fuel such as petrol and diesel vessels produces pollutants such as nitrogen dioxides, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and hydrocarbons. Emission of these gases into the atmosphere affect what is known as ambient (surrounding) air quality. Bad air quality has become one of the major causes of morbidity and premature death. WHO estimated that in 2012, some 72% of outdoor air pollution-related premature deaths were due to ischaemic heart disease and strokes, while 14% of deaths were due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or acute lower respiratory infections,14% of deaths are were to lung cancer.
As the trend and pattern of urbanisation increases the burden of air pollution also increases and for many African countries like Gambia and Senegal not much steps are taken to reduce per capita production of pollution since National Environment Agencies in these countries, don’t have air quality and pollution monitoring centre in hot spot areas in the cities and towns.

The dominant air pollution source includes inefficient vehicles and high concentration of sulphur in fuels, diesel vehicles and generators, open burning of waste etc. African’s urbanisation comes with rapid transportation demand and ownership. For example with the current challenges with respect to air quality in Greater Banjul area, the National Environment Agency has no current policies and programmes such as National Ambient air quality standard, national air quality policy and air quality legislation to set vehicle emission limit, sulphur in fuel content etc. Traffic related air pollution is growing rapidly in African cities because of the use of more polluting and less fuel-efficient second hand cars from Europe and Asia. Most of these vehicles emit one of the most dangerous atmospheric pollutants called Particulate Matter. Particulate Matter consists of airborne particles which is produced by both natural and anthropogenic (human Induced) sources or activities.

It is not the use of second hand cars alone, which are the principal drivers of pollution in African cities. African petroleum market is littered with low quality poorly refined petroleum with high concentration of sulphur- the main culprits behind pollution in African cities. It is high concentration of sulphur that is the cause of higher emission of particulate matter as well pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide etc. When fuel-containing sulphur burned during what is called in chemistry combustion, it emits or produced a bye product called sulphur dioxide. Human Immunological research established the fact that sulphur dioxide affects the respiratory system, reducing lung function, causing coughing, mucus secretion and aggravating asthma and chronic bronchitis.

In many parts of the world, measures are taken to reduce the level of sulphur in diesel and gasoline. In Europe with development of suitable environmental laws and regulation, many of which emanate from European Union Regulations and Directive transposed into national/ domestic legislation, drastic measures are taken to reduce the amount of sulphur in fuel to improved urban air quality. Europe is continually reducing the amount of sulphur in fuel through strict standardisation. In 1996 the sulphur content in fuel was reduce 500ppm (part per million and recently in 2009, Europe fixed the current limit at 10ppm (part per million) as a pathway to introduce an era of ultra-low sulphur. Recently a corporate German Car Giant Volkswagen was embodied on scandal and a fine after cheating about emission technology on its cars to push the sales of its diesel cars in UK and US because of strong emphasis on environmental and corporate governance regulations/ laws.

High level of sulphur in fuel sold to African will never be legally sold in Europe because of strong regulatory regime and environmental standard. However, dominant and active players/ companies involved in trading of these fuel products are European companies. With business as usual in making profit for their shareholders in Europe and North America, these companies are using Africa as a dumping ground for these dangerous chemicals. For example, one of these companies is a Dutch Multinational Company registered in Singapore but with its head office in Geneva called Trafigura. This company had track record of environmental crimes in Africa and a history of scandal and controversies in its global operation such as Iraq oil for food scandal, chemical explosion in Norway, and price fixing in Malta. In 2006 Trafigura was involved in waste dumping in Ivory Coast- a scandal that was extensively covered by British media such as Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph and a court case of fines and out of court settlement by the company.

The socio-economic development both at regional and continental level has resultant activities that increase pollutants released into the atmosphere. Atmospheric pollution is a trans-boundary issues and for many years and African governments not much efforts is done at national, sub regional and continental level to developed legislations and regulations to protect humans, the national/continental biophysical environment.
Urban Pollution is West Africa is a regional problem and fighting against this public health menace requires national, regional and continental dynamic to environmental governance to promote the coordination of national stakeholders in the development and implementation of air quality policies and management strategies. Environmental problems such as atmospheric pollution can be trans-boundary. ECOWAS and African Union need to set up and enforce air quality standard.

The health crisis in our continent is through not only therapeutic medical care but also public health crisis from drainage sanitation and environmental pollution. There is a need at ECOWAS level for regional cooperation for a preparation of flexible and differentiated agreements for the control and ultimate reduction of current trend and pattern of air pollution. The only way forward toward this dynamic is harmonisation among member states for practical national air quality management legislation, standards, monitoring and data management procedures. Both AU and Regional organisations need to develop and strength regulatory institution to eliminate corporate criminality of dumping of dirty petroleum product, enact regulations to restrict the age of imported vehicles and also ensure that new and second hand imported gasoline vehicles are equipped with functioning catalytic converters.