An op-ed by U.S. Mission Uganda Chargé d’Affaires Christopher Krafft on the occasion of Air Quality Awareness Week | May 6, 2020
From May 4-8, we celebrate Air Quality Awareness Week. It is a time to recognize that better air means better health and that, just as with COVID-19, we are all in this fight together.
Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy once said, “We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future.” The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated that our health is interconnected, and that one person’s actions can affect the health of many. The same goes for air quality. Air pollution knows no borders. One person’s actions that harm air quality affects the health of his or her neighbors. And so, just as with COVID-19, we all must work together to find ways to improve the air we breathe.
The World Health Organization estimates that over 85 people die in Uganda every day due to causes related to air pollution. Burning household trash, cooking with charcoal, and using plastic bags to light charcoal stoves (sigiri), unregulated emissions from vehicles and industry, and dust have made Kampala the third most polluted capital city in Africa according to a 2019 World Air Quality Report. Air pollution increases the chance of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, and lung cancer. Preliminary research results conducted by Makerere Lung Institute demonstrate that lung cancer cases in Uganda have increased by 40 percent in the last 10 years.
This is why the U.S. Mission in Uganda is taking action. Four years ago, we installed the first air quality standard monitor in Uganda. We made the data available to the public at the following website: https://www.airnow.gov/international/us-embassies-and-consulates/#Uganda$Kampala. The monitor and the data have facilitated collaboration between the U.S. Mission and Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), AirQo, Makerere University School of Public Health, Makerere University Lung Institute, and other organizations.
In 2018, the U.S. government sponsored a group of ten people from KCCA, NEMA, Makerere University School of Public Health, and AirQo to go to the United States for training on air quality monitoring and mitigation. We also sponsored the visit to Uganda of a U.S. air quality expert from the University of Wyoming who provided valuable training at KCCA, Makerere University, and Mbarara University. These trainings have inspired action in air quality work at KCCA, AirQo, NEMA, and the Eastern Africa GeoHealth Hub. And they are examples of how the collaboration between the United States and Uganda has a meaningful impact on the lives of Ugandans – in fact, it saves lives! Today, the country has over 70 low-cost air quality monitors with over 50 sensors made in Uganda by Ugandan scientists with support from Google (visit airqo.net for more).
It is everyone’s responsibility to improve air quality. It starts with acknowledging the problem. Then it requires cooperation, environmental innovation, governance, behavior change, public demand, and strong technical capacity across all administrative levels. We applaud the work being done by NEMA, KCCA, and AirQo to advance national air quality standards and develop emission inventories for Kampala with the backing of U.S. air quality experts and other donor agencies. And we are committed to continuing our support for efforts like these. Later this year, the U.S. Embassy plans to support two Air Quality Fellows from the United States to work with NEMA and KCCA to help draft improved air quality regulations and enhance data monitoring activities.
In recent weeks, following the government’s suspension on movements to counter the spread of COVID-19, Kampala’s air quality has improved by up to 40 percent according to a recent study by Makerere University’s AirQo project. And this is obvious even to the casual observer – have you noticed how much better the air looks, and how much further you can see into the distance? This is a clear indicator that motorized traffic is one of the key drivers of air pollution in Uganda.
It is therefore prudent that we all support KCCA’s initiative to introduce car-free streets in some parts of the city, and we hope that policies will be developed to promote mandatory inspection and maintenance of vehicles. Uganda should also explore ways to end and provide alternatives to burning household trash, and adopt the use of clean energy products for cooking. These steps will improve the quality of the air that we all breathe, present new business opportunities, and reduce the risk of dying from dangerous diseases like COVID-19, heart disease, lung cancer, and others.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has provided us an opportunity to learn and see first-hand how we can improve the air quality around us. Now is the time to continue the momentum, and for each of us to commit to producing less pollution. Make that commitment not only for yourselves and your neighbors, but for your children, and your children’s children.