Air pollution is a chronic disease and a silent killer. We need to anticipate it and proactively address it head on before it overtakes us.
In April 2019 it was time for me to relocate to Kigali from Seoul, I was happy to move away from Seoul’s deteriorating air quality. While living in Korea, a day would start by checking the local air pollution levels to see whether I can open the window in the morning and whether my preschooler son should wear a mask to kindergarten or not. The city’s bad air quality would also influence how weekends were spent – outside or at home with windows tightly shut. It generally affected the overall quality of life, let alone slowly harming the health and well-being of family and loved ones.
I was therefore excited at the prospect of moving to the “Land of a Thousand Hills” to be finally breathing fresh and pollution-free air. Having lived in Kigali for a couple of months, however, I find myself still concerned about being exposed to air pollution, especially for my young son and my elderly parents as they are in the age groups that are most negatively affected.
Although air quality is bad mainly along the roads and appears to be more localized compared to Seoul, it’s not difficult to feel myself inhaling particulate matters, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds while walking down the main streets of Kigali. According to a recent study commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, motor vehicle emissions, as well as domestic biomass cooking stoves using wood and charcoal as fuels, are the primary contributors to poor air quality in Rwanda. So what are we doing about this problem?
Rwanda is undergoing rapid urbanization as a pathway to economic transformation, and GGGI Rwanda is excited to be part of this journey by supporting an inclusive and green urbanization process. However, it is important to recognize the complexity of urban opportunities and challenges. There are different and at times conflicting components of urbanization that need to be addressed holistically and in an integrated fashion to achieve sustainability, inclusion, and resilience. A well thought out urbanization process can be a powerful ammunition for fighting off air pollution as well as other economic, environmental and social challenges.
While considered as one of the cleanest countries in Africa, I feel that more proactive measures may be needed to clean up the dirty air in our midst, especially by tackling the transport sector more aggressively. We need more stringent policy measures that are effectively enforced to get pollution-emitting and inefficient vehicles off the streets. We need better incentives to mainstream cleaner cars, motorcycles and buses to roam around the streets of Kigali and around Rwanda. But more importantly, we need to have a public transport system that is pollution-free and fit for the terrains of Rwanda. Making cities like Kigali cycle and pedestrian friendly as well as having more car-free zones can also be included in the mix of measures that reduce air pollution.
Today, 5th June is World Environment Day of 2019 with the focus on “Air Pollution”, I cannot help but feel that air pollution has begun to take hold of Rwanda as it has already taken hold of many urbanized countries around the world. But it’s not late to shift gears to a cleaner and pollution-free path. We need to be more proactive and aggressive to beat air pollution before it beats us.
Author of Op-Ed: Inhee Chung, Country Representative of GGGI Rwanda Country Office.