Kenya needs to address the crisis of air pollution

NAIROBI: The quality of air Kenyans breathe is deteriorating at an alarming rate, especially in urban areas due to heavy pollution. The time for robust action to address the situation is now.

Air pollution is taking a huge, albeit silent toll on Kenyans in terms of the growing number of serious illnesses and even deaths linked to the menace.

A recent study by the University of Nairobi and Sweden’s University of Gotenburg suggested that the air in Nairobi is so polluted that it may be causing serious ailments, including heart and lung diseases as well as cancer!

The study indicated that the amount of cancer-causing elements in the air within the city is 10 times higher than the threshold recommended by the World Health Organisation!

In addition, the 2014 Economic Survey published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics showed that respiratory infections caused the highest number of illnesses in Kenya in 2013 with at least 14.8 million cases being reported.

The diseases were linked largely to air pollution. Air pollution also has severe consequences for the country’s economic performance and general well-being as workers take more sick–leave due to illness, while health care costs skyrocket unnecessarily. That is why there is urgent need to robustly enforce the Air Quality Regulations passed by the National Assembly and gazetted in 2014 to protect the precious air that Kenyans breathe from further devastation.

The regulations are meant to curb pollution of air by vehicles, factories and other sources by ensuring minimum air-quality standards to protect human health and allow an adequate margin of safety.

But the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), the State agency charged with enforcing the regulations is yet to begin doing so despite the fact that the relevant piece of legislation was gazetted at least two years ago.

However, public awareness on the regulations has begun. In addition, there are lingering doubts among stakeholders in the environment sector as to whether Nema will have the requisite backbone and will to enforce the regulations firmly.

Previously, Nema has been faulted for weak and half-hearted enforcement of the laws and regulations under its mandate including those on waste-management, noise pollution, water quality and wetlands management among others.

The recent shocking media reports of massive lead poisoning affecting thousands of residents of Mombasa’s Owino Uhuru’s informal settlement revealed Nema’s underbelly with regard to poor enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.

It would therefore be tragic if the same lacklustre performance is displayed by Nema in enforcing the critical Air Quality Regulations, which have progressive and robust provisions that were put together after consultations with stakeholders.

The regulations provide for the establishment of emission standards for various sources such as mobile sources (motor vehicles) and stationary sources (industries) as outlined in the Environmental Management and Coordination Act, 1999.

Some industries in the country are heavy polluters of the air since they are still using old and inefficient technologies.

They will now be required to adopt emission-reduction technologies to cut their negative impact on air quality or transition to cleaner technologies.

In addition, the regulations seek to control the amount of exhaust fumes that vehicles are allowed to produce, since they contribute significantly to air pollution.

Those that produce visible exhaust fumes will not be allowed on our roads until they comply.

Moreover, both private and public vehicles are to be subjected to annual inspections to ensure that their exhaust emissions remain within the tolerable limits set by the regulations.

Previous moves by the Government to outlaw importation of vehicles older than eight years and phasing out use of lead metal in gasoline are welcome as part of the larger strategy to combat air pollution.

But more robust steps are needed as contained in the new regulations.

The regulations also outlaw release of air pollutants in controlled areas such as residential areas, schools, hospitals, central business districts, national parks and reserves among others.

Overall, in order to enhance the drive to maintain healthy air quality in the country and prevent diseases and deaths, there is need to move into renewable and clean energies such as wind, solar and others as opposed to fossil fuels such as crude oil.

This is what is happening in developed countries and Kenya needs to learn from them.

Political will is therefore needed to take the urgent steps to remedy the crisis of air pollution in the country. The government through Nema cannot afford to be lax.