Aminibus belches black smoke; the lorry behind it in the traffic jam billows white fumes. Eyes smart in the smog as diesel gases from thousands of 10 and 15-year-old vehicles fill Nairobi’s hazy evening air, adding to pollution levels that are “beyond imagination”, according to one resident. This jam could last for one, three, even five hours – last year, one stretched for 30 miles.
We could easily be in Cairo, Lagos or another African megacity, but this is the eight-lane Mombasa Road in Kenya’s capital – a permanently clogged artery in a metropolis where the number of vehicles doubles every six years.
Kenya is one of the few countries in Africa to have banned cars using the most sulphurous fuels, but what research there is suggests this is still one of the most polluted cities in the world – made worse by smoke from roadside rubbish fires, diesel generators and indoor cooking stoves.
No one knows for sure, however, because like nearly all African cities, Nairobi does not regularly monitor its urban air quality.
“In 28 years of living in Nairobi, I have seen the number of people quadruple and car ownership go from 5% to 27% of people. The pollution is mind-boggling,” says Dorothy McCormick, a Nairobi university economics researcher and author of books on African transport.
“There are 16 times as many vehicles on the road as when I came – the city just cannot cope. We have no tarmac left, no congestion charge and people use charcoal, paraffin and wood to heat their homes. You can see the haze building up from the early morning. What do you do – stop breathing? There is no escape.”
With half the world’s population growth over the next 30 years predicted to occur in Africa, the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) expects the number of cars in African cities to rise dramatically. “The vehicle fleet will double in the next seven years in Nairobi,” says Rob de Jong, Unep’s head of transport. “The number of cars in Africa is still relatively small, but the emissions per vehicle are much higher [than the rest of the world].”
Africa’s urban air is especially bad because so few cars are new, the vast majority having been shipped in secondhand from Japan and Europe with their catalytic converters and air filters dismantled. It is in danger of becoming a dumping ground for the world’s old cars – importing vehicles that no longer meet rich countries’ pollution standards.
Source: The Guardian
Author: John Vidal