Oudtshoorn seen from old route up the Swartberg Pass.
- Oudtshoorn, in the Western Cape has the best air quality in Africa, a new report shows.
- Mining town Thabazimbi in Limpopo has the poorest air quality in South Africa, followed by Ekurhuleni in Gauteng.
- Thabazimbi experienced several fire breakouts in 2022 which saw concentrations of air pollutants rise 50% compared to 2021.
- For climate change news and analysis, go to News24 Climate Future.
Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape tops the list of 15 least polluted regional cities in Africa, a new report shows. However, Thabazimbi, in Limpopo, is among the top 15 regional cities in the continent which are most polluted.
Swiss technology company IQAir on Tuesday released its 2022 World Air Quality report. The report, which is backed by the United Nations Environment Programme, assesses air quality data from monitoring stations across more than 7 300 cities globally. It considers the concentrations of fine particles of an air pollutant– known as PM2.5 – which is the most harmful.
PM2.5 includes particles of sulfates, nitrates, black carbon and ammonium, the report indicated. It can be produced from human activities like burning wood and coal, agricultural processes, industrial activity and processes, power generation, and from vehicle engines. Natural sources of PM2.5 are dust storms, wildfires and sandstorms, the report indicated.
Long-term exposure to PM2.5 negatively impacts health, and individuals can suffer respiratory illnesses like heart disease. It can also negatively impact mental health.
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The World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for PM2.5 concentrations is five micrograms per cubic meter or 5 μg/m3 annually. South Africa’s concentration of PM2.5 in 2022 was 23.4 μg/m3 – nearly five times more than the WHO guideline. South Africa ranked 39th out of 131 countries in terms of worst air quality in 2022. Chad ranked first – being the worst in terms of air qualitywith PM2.5 concentrations at 89.7 μg/m3.
South Africa’s PM2.5 concentration was 23.4 µg/m3 in 2022, the country ranked 13th out of the 19 African nations assessed.
Concentrations of PM2.5 deteriorated from the 22.7 μg/m3 recorded in 2021. The report, however, noted that there has been an improvement in air quality in most South African cities. For example, PM2.5 concentrations for Johannesburg was 21.7 μg/m3 (an improvement from 27.3μg/m3). Bloemfontein recorded a major (62%) improvement from 42.2 μg/m3 recorded last year to 16.2 μg/m3 recorded in 2022. It did not say what drove the massive improvement.
The analysis shows that 12 out of 15 regional cities in Africa which have the least air pollution are in South Africa. Oudtshoorn ranks first and its PM2.5 concentration is within the WHO guideline at 0.8 μg/m3. Two other places – Grabouw in the Western Cape and Niewoudtville in the Northern Cape – also meet the WHO’s guidelines. Oudtshoorn unseeted Niewoudtville which ranked first in 2021.
Coastal city Cape Town improved its reading, with the PM2.5 concentration down 12% to 6.7 μg/m3. Port Elizabeth also slightly improved its reading from 10.5 μg/m3 to 9.3 μg/m3.
Rankings of top 15 regional cities in Africa which are least polluted.
Last year, eight of South Africa’s cities including Bloemfontein, Tshwane and Johannesburg were among those listed as most polluted in Africa. IQAir, however, notes that data on air quality across the continent is generally sparse.
This year two places made the list of worst polluted. Mining town Thabazimbi in Limpopo recorded a PM2.5 concentration at 42.2 μg/m3 exceeding the WHO guidelines by roughly eight times. It ranked seventh among the most polluted regional cities.
The report noted that the region experienced “several fire breakouts” and a shortage of firefighting which pushed its PM2.5 concentrations up 50% from 2021 levels.
Ekurhuleni is another South African city which is listed among the top 15 most polluted in Africa. It ranked 13th with its PM2.5 concentrations at 32 μg/m3 or roughly five times more the WHO guidelines.
The regional city with the worst air pollution in Africa is N’Djamena in Chad.
Ekhurhuleni is known for industrial activity as well as aviation in the area. It also falls within the Highveld Priority Area. A high court in March 2022 declared the air quality in the HPA violates the constitutional right to a safe and healthy environment. The court also ordered the government to clean the dirty air. The HPA is home to Eskom’s coal power stations and some of Sasol’s operations – both companies are the two largest greenhouse gas emitters in the country.
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Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Barbara Creecy is seeking leave to appeal an aspect of the judgment in order to clarify the interpretation of the law.
Risk of massive loss of life
The IQAir report noted that drivers of South Africa’s air pollution include transport, energy generation and consumption and industrial growth, among other factors. Pollution from coal-fired power also risks exposing people to sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, the report warned:
South Africans living especially close to the country’s coal-fired power plants are exposed to higher levels of SO2, CO2, NOx, and particulate matter, and are more susceptible to experiencing negative health impacts related to air pollution.
A separate report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air warns that if Eskom does not comply with air-quality standards, then close to 80 000 people risk losing their lives.
IQAir also highlights that poor air quality has led to over six million deaths (most of which occur in low-income and middle-income countries) each year. It also has led 93 billion days of people living with illness such as asthma, cancer, lung disease and premature mortality.
In response, governments should decrease air pollution by incorporating the WHO guidelines in country air quality standards. The report also promotes investment in renewable energy projects and the use of renewable energy to power public transport, among other interventions.