Air pollution is perhaps the greatest environmental public health threat we face today.
According to the 2017 State of Global Air Report, long-term exposure to air pollution contributed to the deaths of 6.1 million people in 2016 with strokes, heart attacks, lung disease and lung cancer causing many of them.
Pollution in the air is now the fourth-highest cause of death worldwide, trailing smoking, high blood pressure and diet related diseases. Sadly, the majority of these deaths are recorded in poorer nations.
The air pollution challenge is also affecting Rwanda. While we are still trying to understand the full extent of the problem, we do know that in 2012, more than 2,000 deaths were attributed to ambient air pollution.
Between 2012 and 2015, the number of hospital admissions for acute respiratory infections in health centres across the country increased by almost double to more than 3.3 million.
Today, air pollution is not only an environmental challenge, but also a risk to our national development.
That’s why the Ministry of Environment and the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) recently commissioned a study to assess the major sources of air pollution in Rwanda. Only by knowing the problem can we adequately respond to address it.
The study provides an understanding of air quality in Rwanda by identifying sources of pollution, establishing a baseline, and developing related strategy and policy recommendations to mitigate air pollution.
The research indicates that vehicle emissions are the leading cause of air pollution in the City of Kigali and other urban areas, while domestic biomass cookstoves from wood and charcoal and open fire burning in fields are the primary contributor to poor air quality in residential and rural areas.
It is also troubling that a three month study conducted in Kigali last year found that particulate matter concentrations in the city occasionally exceeded World Health Organisation guidelines.
However, it was also reassuring to note that the high concentrations of these pollutants, which were largely attributed to vehicle emissions, greatly reduced during holidays and car-free days.
This clearly demonstrates that we must continue to clean up our transport sector and look to new, cleaner technologies and innovative policy measures to reduce air pollution.
In fact, recent advances in electric car, bus and motorcycle technologies hold much promise for Rwanda and we commend private sector operators already investing in clean transport.
Despite the challenges we face, efforts already underway to address air pollution are yielding promising results. Through a partnership between the Ministry of Education and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Rwanda Climate Change Observatory at Mount Mugogo was established.
Just last week, the World Meteorological Organisation accepted the observatory as a station in the WMO Global Atmosphere Watch programme. As a result, Rwanda joins an international network of observation systems supporting the global response to climate change and air quality.
In January 2015, the Government of Rwanda enacted new vehicle emission regulations, representing one of the first large-scale air pollution mitigation steps in the region. In 2016, a revised law governing the preservation of air quality and prevention of air pollution was passed.
Through a Rwanda Green Fund (FONERWA) investment with REMA that began last year, climate change and air quality monitoring infrastructure is being installed, enabling data collection to inform decision-making and enforcement activities.
In addition, the Ministry of Infrastructure and other partners are running campaigns to promote clean cooking.
While air pollution can sometimes be difficult to conceptualise, there are simple steps we can all take to reduce our contribution to the problem. We can switch from cooking with wood and charcoal to cleaner alternatives such as gas and electricity.
We can work with farmers to stop the burning of fields and instead plant trees. And we can drive less, regularly service our cars and avoid keeping the engine running when parked.
From continuing to enforce and strengthen strict import regulations on vehicles and smoothing traffic flows around hotspots, to reducing emissions from bus fleets and domestic stoves, the government will take on board the policy recommendations provided in the study and examine how to best implement them.
The air pollution challenge is a high stakes one that requires close collaboration to address. The Government of Rwanda is committed to improving the quality of Rwanda’s air.
We are ready to work with all stakeholders to beat air pollution and protect the health of people living in Rwanda.
The writer is Rwanda’s Minister for Environment.