Socio-economic development in any country cannot be separated from the wellbeing of the environment and integrity of human health. No wonder there are many global initiatives, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to ensure both human welfare and long-term sustainability of Planet Earth. A wide range of human and natural factors contribute to reduction in air quality, and this problem is even more serious in developing countries.
Every year, about 17000 people die from exposure to air pollution in Ghana. According to the 2016 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, air pollution is one of the highest and fastest rising causes of ill health in the country, implicated in increasing asthma, respiratory conditions, and cardiovascular diseases, among others. The danger is evident.
We, the participants of Open Air Quality Workshop held from 18th to 19th May 2018 in Accra, Ghana are concerned about the growing ‘air inequality’ in Ghana. Air inequality refers to the unequal access to clean air to breathe. Our inability to solve this problem arises from gaps in research and public policy implementation, poverty and human behaviour. We believe that bringing stakeholders from different social and professional backgrounds to the table will ensure that there would be cleaner air for all.
Contextualising Ghana’s Air Quality Issues
Air pollution in Ghana is driven by rapid urbanisation and population growth in cities such as Accra, Kumasi, and Takoradi. Specifically, vehicular emissions, biomass burning, electronic waste, and construction are major contributors. Research indicates that particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5), nitrous oxides, and sulphur dioxide are some of the key air pollutants of public health concern. Generally, people in low-income areas are disproportionately affected by poor air quality. However, because these pollutants can travel long distances everyone can be at risk of suffering from bad air.
Air pollution is exacerbated in some neighbourhoods due to lack of enforcement of existing urban planning regulations and guidelines. Currently, communities are zoned into residential, industrial, and mixed use. However, some factories are sited in areas strictly designated for residential or mixed use, exposing local residents to potentially toxic gaseous discharges.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the government body in charge of protecting and improving the environment in Ghana. The agency states on its website: “It’s our job to make sure that air, land and water are looked after by everyone in today’s society, so that tomorrow’s generations inherit a cleaner, healthier world.” The agency’s leadership is therefore crucial in the fight against air inequality. The EPA is however under resourced and under staffed. Currently, air quality monitoring is limited to a few locations in the Greater Accra Region to the detriment of the nine other regions due to resource constraints. Monitoring is not done in real time but rather on weekly basis for most pollutants. Without extensive routine monitoring, fighting air pollution becomes more challenging.
Routine air quality data gathered by the Ghana EPA is not publicly available as pertains in some countries. Most people can only access aggregate data in reports or presentations. The process of accessing data outside these opportunities are not clear to the ordinary citizen, and could be potentially cumbersome. Without open data, it becomes difficult to appreciate air quality in Accra at a given time. People and institutions in heavily polluted areas may not be aware of the dangers they face to take appropriate action. Further, restricted access to air quality data stifles research and innovation to address the issue. If EPA holds on to its data, what then are they protecting, people or data? If evidence is stored in the dark, what then is available to justify the call for action? Which one is more deadly, the ill health inducing atmosphere or hidden data?
Moving Forward Towards Cleaner Air
Tackling air pollution in Ghana requires concerted effort from all stakeholders, which includes the Central Government, municipal and metropolitan authorities, EPA, academia, civil society, industry, communities, and citizens.
Research is growing on air quality issues in Ghana, but more work needs to be done. It is important investigators see air pollution as an interdisciplinary issue, exploring both physical and behavioural dimensions to derive actionable insights to holistically tackle it.
Policymakers, civil society, community organisations, innovators, and journalists can serve as effective carriers to move the latest evidence into action. Possible interventions include policy prescriptions, public awareness campaigns, and community projects. Public inputs are very critical, and can be courted through face-to-face meetings, media engagements, and the use of digital technology. Sustainable innovations in industries, transport, housing, construction, and energy sectors would likely have the greatest impacts in improving air quality.
The government should, as a matter of urgency, strictly enforce existing regulations on zoning, while introducing buffer zones, to reduce the incidence of industrial pollution in communities. In the long term, systems should be put in place to reduce use of second hand vehicles and improve public transport system to reduce vehicular pollution.
We recommend to Government to better resource EPA to increase the coverage and frequency of air quality monitoring in Ghana. We appeal to the EPA to consider making its data open and accessible to the public. The reason for the data “protection” must be properly addressed by the government. This would go a long way to boost research, public education, and innovation, ultimately leading to improved health and wellbeing of the population. Community groups and innovators could explore the potential of citizen science, using low cost air quality monitors to overcome the prevailing dearth of data, rather than being passive players.
There is great potential for open data to be part of the solution in helping Ghana to improve air quality for everybody who lives here. Imagine if schools can tell when children should remain indoors so they can be safer, or asthmatics and the aged can choose a particular travel route because they have good air quality information. Imagine if we can save 17,000 lives every year because we took action! Families will live happily, distress situations will reduce and our communities will be our “heaven”.
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