Exhaust fumes are a threat to human health, and an aggravator of climate change, yet sooty smoke has become a common part of life that most are indifferent to, SHARON TSHIPA writes.

Its a few minutes before noon.

I choke. In desperate need to relieve my throat of the torpid stench that occupies it, I cough. While my eyes try to locate the source ofmy sudden discomfort I cough some more.

My head is a bit giddy. My eyes burn with tears, I ignore the pain and force them to focus on the white van that had just overtaken the 15 seater public mini bus I am travelling in. The van’s single exhaust is shooting thick black smoke-in our directions. I pull the window to my right shut.

The female passenger sitting directly in front me tries to close her window but fails. She calls to the driver for help, but he informs her that the window is dysfunctional. The other three passengers, plus the driver seem unruffled. I live in the outskirts of town, so I reason they may constantly be exposed to this,hencetheir indifference. The ordeal has made me conscious of my every breath, and the heaviness of my irritated chest. Though I am chasing after a deadline, I pray that the mini bus driver maintains his snail pace so the white van and its sooty fumes can disappear.

My mind registers the irony of this entire incident as it takes me back to the interview I have just had with Miles Nan, the Founding Director of a company called Mileage Air, a business that is currently the sole agent of GREE air-conditioning in Botswana.

“The source of air pollution that irks me the most in this city is old, unmaintained cars. I often find myself driving behind cars that emit dark smoke which can make one sick, causing temporary breathing problems and coughing,” Miles had responded to one of my questions.

Transport sector growth

Miles’s irritation is not unfounded, Botswana’s transport sector, as in other Southern African countries, has expanded rapidly in recent years, resulting in doubled car fleets. For example,according to Statistics Botswana’s Transport and Infrastructure Stats Brief Q1 2018,there were 12,583 first vehicle registrations during the first quarter of 2018. Compared to the same quarter of the previous year, first registrations increased by 15.7 percent.

“The government should have a policy that does not allow cars that are more than five years old to be imported into the country. Most of these cars come with their mileage tampered with, giving false information. It’s unrealistic to buy a car for BWP10, 000.00, that’s just too cheap. The government should also consider introducing check points where car engines are checked before being allowed into the country,” informed Miles.

Miles’ consciousness to air pollution in Botswana at a time when some people – carried by the wave of development seem unconcerned – emanates from the fact that he is originally fromChina. Miles has been living in Botswana for over two decades, over time, as far as pollution is concerned, he says hehas observed how Botswana is starting to take after China.

“I often take pictures of cars I see emitting fumes around town, that’s because I am bothered. Botswana can learn a lot from China, as China has since significantly reduced vehicle emissions by use ofnew technology. Car engines are equipped with three-way catalytic converters. Being a developing country, I understand that the importation of second hands cars cannot be stopped, so this is where three-way catalytic converters come to the rescue. Regular car maintenance should also be encouraged in order to reduce smoke,” advised Miles, adding thatthe Botswana government should be proactive now in putting its people and the environment first.

In the first quarter of 2018, according to Statistics Botswana, used vehicles made up 82.2 percent of the total first registrations. Brand new and re-built vehicles contributed 17.6 percent and 0.2 percent of the total first registrations respectively. The majority of passenger cars were used; 91.5 percent. Other types of vehicles with a higher percentage of used vehicles were mini buses at 92.4 percent, trucks at 83.2 percent and buses with 62.9 percent.Most of the used cars were imported from Japan.

Vehicle emissions & health

Vehicle emissions are a threat to human beings and their environment, as exhaust fumes consist of carbon-monoxide, soot, benzene and sulphur dioxide. Ashish Tiwari’s article published on Science ABC two years ago posits that carbon dioxide is the worst as it binds to haemoglobin in blood, resulting in suffocation if a person is exposed for too long. Benzene is linked to cancer and the dropping of red blood cells, leading to anemia. Sulphur dioxide is said to irritate the organs of the respiratory tract, leading to sneezing and coughing and shortness of breath. The mass left behind as a result of incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons is called soot. Soot Tiwari notes is linked to cancer, influenza,asthma, acute vascular dysfunction and an increased risk of coronary artery disease.

Taking into consideration these daunting facts and the assertion that Botswana is one of the most highly polluted countries, despite its low population of almost 2.3 million, makes one wonder why statistical information on recorded cases in the country is not available when there are locations where people’s lives are endangered due to exposure to high pollutants. According to a research paper titled ‘Status of Air Pollution in Botswana and Significance to Air Quality and Human Health’, written by WistonModise, published in September 2017 in the Journal of Health and Pollution,  about 40 percent of an estimated 330 child deaths due to acute lower respiratory infectionsare attributable to household air pollution.However,no data on the negative impact of vehicle emissions is available.The World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Ambient Air Quality Database of 2018, however,notes that more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO limits. Thus, 4.2 million deaths worldwide every year are attributed to ambient air pollution.

Vehicle emissions & climate change

“Vehicle emissions can result in climate changes too. For example, atmospheric ozone warms the climate while different particulate matter components can have either warming – black carbon – or cooling – sulphate – effects on the climate. These affect the amount of radiation; solar in the atmosphere,” said Modise, who is a Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Botswana.

The transport sector is alleged to be the fastest growing contributor to climate emissions, as it uses more energy than any other end-use sector. According toWHO, transport accounted for about 23 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 and 27 percent of end-use energy emissions, with urban transport accounting for about 40 percent of end-use energy consumption. Diesel transport is one of the world’s major sources of black carbon – a short-lived climate pollutant WHO says is the second highest contributor to global warming as it has a warming effect many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Because it persists in the atmosphere for only a few weeks, measures to reduce it can have an immediate effect on slowing climate change.

Improving air quality

The link between air pollution, climate change and health suggests that improving air quality will combat climate change and save human lives. With this belief, WHO is planning to host its first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health. The conference scheduled to be held from October 30, 2018 in Geneva, Switzerland will encourage dialogue and engagement. The resulting solutions to redress air pollution will save people from ailments such as stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases. As improving air quality also means combating climate change, heat stress related deaths, loss of lives by drowning and loss of property to floods, and food shortages resulting from droughts and flooding among other misfortunes will be history.

“It has proven to be effective to invest in smart traffic lights that enable large amounts of cars to keep going and not stop and go. Investing in alternative means of transport, and safe cycle paths so that people can cycle short distances can also curb air pollution by cars,” suggested JeldauReitf, Program Manager of Stepping Stones International, Botswana, while Michael Murray-Hudson, a Senior Research Scholar (Wetland Ecology) at the Okavango Research Institute is of the view that the government of Botswana should desist from subsidising fuel. Citizens, he said need to pay fully, so they use fuel consciously – conserving for their benefit and that of the environment.  “I think now we are in danger, we may be generating more carbon emissions than before. I don’t think we are a carbon sink anymore,” said Murray-Hudson.

African countries can benefit from investing in a good public transport system that is state owned. Once done, the attitude of even the rich towards public transport will change for the better. Once all is said and done, air pollution by vehicle emissions will cease to be a threat to human health, and an aggravator of climate change. To achieve these desirables in Botswana and the rest of the continent, environmental legislation needs to be reviewed, and well enforced. Nevertheless, Botswana will still have other greenhouse gas contributors such as cow dung, coal, and veldt fires to contend with.