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A groundbreaking report has revealed the world’s largest nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution hotpots — and the most polluted area is Mpumalanga in South Africa. 

Greenpeace South Africa pointed to a group of 12 coal-fired power plants in the area, which it said are the “most polluting cluster of coal-fired power stations in the world.” 

Melita Steele, senior climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace Africa, said in a statement that it is “both disturbing and very scary.” 

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The environmental organisation’s analysis, released on Monday, is based on data produced by a European Space Agency satellite between June 1 and Aug. 31 this year. 

“Because South Africa’s coal-belts are hidden from view for the majority of South Africans, it can be easy to pretend that they don’t actually exist,” added Steele in a statement. “The reality is that coal extraction and burning has devastating impacts on the people living in the area.” 

Mother-of-four Letta Mdluli, of Middleburg, told Global Citizen that she was diagnosed with tuberculosis a few years after moving to Reyno Ridge in Witbank, in Mpumplanga province.

“I had moved to Witbank in 1998 after being offered a teaching job at a school, but shortly after, I fell ill and I was told I have asthma,” Mdluli said.

Originally from Mhluzi, Mdluli said she had to resign from her job “as my condition became worse and the school principal was getting annoyed of me being absent from work.” 

Amos Ngwenya, of Ackerville in Witbank, said his mother died in 2003 after contracting asthma.

“Nothing could help her, she died while taking treatment for TB as her body had given up and the area was polluted, which was causing her to be worse,” Ngwenya said.

“How many people should die before something is done?” he said. “We can’t put lives over jobs.”

According to Greenpeace, the satellite data further revealed that “millions of people” living in the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria are also impacted by the pollution, which is carried by wind from Mpumalanga. 

The coal-fired power plants in Mpumalanga are owned and operated by Eskom, a South African electricity public utility launched in 1923, according to the organisation. 

Greenpeace said that South Africa has “relatively weak” minimum emission standards (MES), compared to many other countries. This allows coal-fired power stations to emit up to 10 times more NO2 than is allowed in China or Japan, it said. 

“Our government urgently needs to come up with an action plan that protects millions of people, instead of dirty coal power stations,” Steele said.

Greenpeace also said that the “majority of Eskom’s ancient and highly-polluting coal-fired power stations do not comply with these MES.” 

Eskom’s spokesperson, Khulu Phasiwe, tweeted: “Currently, some of the Eskom power stations do not comply with one or more of the minimum emission standards required by the environmental management legislation.”

“Eksom is legally bound to comply with the minimum emissions standards at all its power stations,” he continued. “To this end, Eskom has begun a process of retrofitting its power plants to comply with the environmental legislation.” 

Nitrogen dioxide, at low levels, irritates the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. But, when a person is exposed to it for a long time, can be much more deadly.

People who are exposed to air pollution have an increased risk of death from lung cancer, stroke, heart, and respiratory disease.

As well as South Africa, Greenpeace also identified hotspots at well-known coal-fired power plants in Germany and India, and a total of nine coal power and industrial clusters in China. 

China has the highest number of individual hotspots in the world, followed by the Middle East, the European Union, India, the United States, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to Quartz.

Cities such as Santiago de Chile, London, Paris, Dubai, and Tehran also featured high on the list, due to emissions relating to transport. 

Air pollution is a global health crisis, with up to 95% of the world’s population now reportedly breathing unsafe air. And, with hotspots identified across six continents, Greenpeace’s analysis clearly demonstrates the sheer extent and border-crossing nature of the crisis.

The organisation said governments must urgently step up their act and provide clean and healthy air for all.

The Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 is presented and hosted by The Motsepe Foundation, with major partners House of Mandela, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, Nedbank, Vodacom, Coca Cola Africa, Big Concerts, BMGF Goalkeepers, Eldridge Industries, and associate partners HP and Microsoft.


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