Clean skies, healthy people

Rwanda has joined the rest of the world to mark the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. The day calls upon all of us, from governments and the private sector to civil society and individuals, to reduce air pollution and transform the way we live, work, move and power our economies.

Rwanda recognises that air pollution, in both urban and rural areas across the country, is a serious threat to our health and our environment. According to estimates from the World Health Organisation, the combined effects of outdoor and household air pollution cause about seven million premature deaths every year, largely due to increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, lung disease and lung cancer and acute respiratory infections.

 

The impact of air pollution is also being felt in Rwanda. In 2012, more than 2,200 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.

 

The recent COVID-19 lockdown in Rwanda made visible the link between human activities and air pollution as people stayed home, and skies became clearer. The impact was particularly pronounced in Kigali, where a reduction in air pollution of up to 20 per cent was observed. Despite this temporary dip in emissions, air pollution is predicted to rise in the coming years.

 

It is for these reasons that the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies is so significant. To mark the occasion, the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, the Rwanda Standards Board and the Rwanda National Police undertook an inspection of motor vehicles and industries, held a virtual seminar on clear air research and organised awareness-raising activities.

These efforts aim to inform Rwandans about the sources and impacts of air pollution and the programmes and innovations in place to improve air quality and protect our health.

One of these innovations is the installation of ambient air quality monitors in ten locations countrywide (Rusizi, Rubavu, Nyabihu, Gicumbi, Ruhango, Kirehe, Kayonza and Nyagatare, Gitega and at the University of Rwanda in the City of Kigali) to track pollution from major roads, industries and infrastructure facilities like electricity plants as well as buildings.

Rwanda has also adopted the East African Community emission standards and air quality specifications governing cement factories, as well as vehicle and thermal power plant emissions standards.

A number of electric cars are now being promoted by Volkswagen Rwanda and the Rwanda Green Fund (FONERWA) has invested in Ampersand to pilot electric motorcycles. Furthermore, efforts are underway to pilot the conversion of combustion engine taxi-motos to electric ones in partnership with a private operator and the United Nations Development Programme.

In addition to the regular emissions testing done during motor vehicle inspections, mobile emissions testers are now being used by traffic police to conduct spot checks of vehicles suspected to be polluting the air.

Vehicles found to have emissions exceeding the permissible limits shall be taken off the road until the problem is fixed and attested to by the motor vehicle inspection centre.

In the home, efforts are also underway to encourage Rwandans to switch from cooking with wood and charcoal to cleaner alternatives such as electricity, gas (LPG) and efficient cookstoves.

Protecting the quality of our air also requires us to conserve nature. That is why Rwanda has invested heavily in reforestation efforts. Today, the country’s forest cover sits at 30.4%.

The goal is now to maintain this achievement and increase the productivity of these forests. Every year, the Ministry of Environment and partners organise tree planting activities which help to rehabilitate degraded forests countrywide and protect remnant forests.

Our efforts, however, must not stop there. We also need to work together to protect our environment at large, including wetlands, swamps, rivers and our wildlife. This is especially true when implementing major infrastructure initiatives.

For example, as part of the ongoing countrywide school construction project, the Ministry of Environment is working with the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Local Government and partners to ensure the necessary measures are in place to minimise the impact on our environment and optimise the efficient use of natural resources.

Doing so ensures that our development efforts do not negatively impact our environment, but improve and regenerate nature, bringing benefits for all of us.

There is a close link between reducing air pollution, protecting our forests, conserving our environment and the fight to address climate change. Rwanda is committed to limiting air pollution, greening our growth and fulfilling its climate action commitments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

To achieve the lofty goals we have set for ourselves, however, we all need to play a part.

Today, there are cost-effective and practical solutions available to reduce air pollution and protect our environment. By working hand in hand, we can implement these solutions, address climate change and foster greater health, development and environmental benefits for all Rwandans.

The writer is the Minister for Environment.

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