When you hear about deadly air pollution, your mind is likely to turn to smog filled cityscapes and congested highways. Cities in India and China have become iconic for air pollution challenges and the health impacts they bring.

But city-dwellers in India and China are not the only ones facing worrying levels of air pollution. From Senegal to Peru, millions of people breathe polluted air every day, suffering a range of health implications. In 2012, an estimated 3.7 million people died from diseases brought on by breathing polluted air. And air pollution is not limited to big cities. Add to that pollution from household sources like cook stoves and heating, and that number goes up to about 7 million, according to the World Health Organization. The impact of pollution is felt across families, cities and societies in terms of health costs, impaired quality of life, lost productivity and missed economic opportunities.

A new World Bank report, Clean Air and Healthy Lungs: Enhancing the World Bank’s Approach to Air Quality Management, examines the Bank’s own experience working with developing countries to improve air quality over a decade, so that the institution and developing countries are better prepared to tackle this major challenge in the future.

The report comes on the heels of the formation of a Pollution Management and Environmental Health program whose focus is to help developing countries reduce pollution and build healthier and more economically stable communities. The Bank recently commissioned a review of its methodology for estimating the cost of air pollution damages that will provide stronger evidence for action on pollution. The Bank is also a partner of advocacy and knowledge sharing coalitions, such as the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution and the  Climate and Clean Air Coalition, that seek to advance better understanding of pollution challenges and effective solutions. 

Africa to join Asia? 

Most people would say that pollution is probably the worst in Asia – and for good reason. The majority of the top 50 cities with the highest ambient air pollution concentration are in Asia based on the WHO’s 2014 air pollution database. But cities like Dakar in Senegal and the Delta cities in Egypt are also among the top 50, and Lagos, Nigeria, and Accra, Ghana, are not far behind.

“We need a proactive approach to addressing air pollution in Africa to avoid preventable deaths,” said Yewande Awe, World Bank Senior Environmental Engineer, who led the report. “We need to act now rather than responding to this crisis over time or when polluting patterns are locked into place.” The urban population of the continent is expected to triple to 1.23 billion between 2010 and 2050 – which means one in five people in the urbanized world will be in Africa.

"Improving air quality can be achieved in the face of urbanization when proactive leaders are willing to institute the right policies and investments." - Paula Caballero, Senior Director, Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice, World Bank

Better data monitoring

The report also found that with a few exceptions the World Bank’s projects that were reviewed did not include air pollution control as a primary objective. As a result, these projects missed the opportunity to collect critical data, and establish baselines that would help measure the success of air pollution reduction interventions that they supported.  

Many developing countries lack the infrastructure and standardized methods to collect and interpret data that might inform better decision-making and help set national air quality standards. Better data and systematic monitoring are necessary if countries hope to respond to pollution.  Sound analytical data and monitoring of changes over time were some of the critical factors of success in Santiago, Chile, for example, where authorities implemented cleaner transport solutions that were successful in lowering air pollution.

World Bank projects in Chile, Mongolia and Peru demonstrate the importance of an active dialogue with all stakeholders in developing countries; the need for integrated approaches that start with identification of all pollution sources and end with identification of cost-effective interventions; and the need to involve multiple sectors – from transport to health, urban planning and agriculture. Experience also shows that where countries have made progress in addressing air pollution, a combination of technical, policy and economic measures were effective: for example, in China, pollution discharge fees were instituted in cities, and Mexico City removed regressive and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

The future of growth in Africa and Asia will largely take place in cities. This urbanization does not have to mean that deadly polluted and un-breathable air will become the new normal. Cleaner transportation, industry, energy, construction, agriculture and waste systems, backed by stronger standards can save lives and support the cities of the future.

“Improving air quality can be achieved in the face of urbanization when proactive leaders are willing to institute the right policies and investments,” said Paula Caballero, Senior Director of the Environment and Natural Resources Global Practice at the World Bank. “A nation can have clean air and healthy lungs, in addition to the economic benefits of urbanization.”

This piece was originally posted on The World Bank. 


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Clean air and healthy lungs: how to better tackle air pollution