“The main enemy of our respiratory system is the bad quality of air we are breathing,” Professor Ouaoba Kampatileba, head of the respiratory disease department at Yalgado Ouedraogo hospital in Ouagadougou, told IRIN, the UN sponsored news service.
Ouagadougou’s poor air quality is such a problem that we can blame it on about 200 new cancer cases every year. Kampatileba estimated 15 percent of the 8,000 patients admitted to the state hospital each year suffer from air-pollution related illnesses, including soar throat, sinus problems, bronchitis and pneumonia.
In a city where life and work largely takes place out of doors, the problem is serious. Most moped and motorcycle drivers have taken to wearing face masks in the winter months. (Humorously, these masks are usually the sleep masks Air France gives to passengers.)
But what can one do? Ouagadougou’s infamously poor air has been created by the collision and cooperation of three largely intractable factors: the physical layout of the city, its geographic location and the combination of economics and – I would argue – culture.
Problem number one, two (and three)
In regards to air quality, traffic is most likely the greatest culprit, especially in a city swelling past its already oversized footprint. This forces longer commutes on drivers and burns more fossil fuels. Then there’s the mobylette: the ubiquitous two-wheeled moped, which has become a symbol for Ouagadougou itself. Cheap, reliable, easy to maneuver in busy city streets, the mobylette does it all: personal transport, family transport, they can haul boxes, pipes, sheep and chickens. The city would not be the same without the sight of them – or their high-pitched buzz.
The mobylette has definitely democratized traffic in Burkina Faso, and in turn, putting many more vehicles on the road. One researcher found for every 100 families in Burkina Faso, there are 150 2-wheeled motorized vehicles and only 22 cars. Because some mobylettes run on a mixture of gasoline and oil, this two-wheeled transport is responsible for a large portion (81 percent) of the carbon monoxide flung into the air during morning rush hour and roughly 95 percent of the city’s hydrocarbons. Therein lies the problem, according to a new World Bank study: These mobylettes burning the oil-gas mixture deposit harmful quantities of benzene into the air, which researchers claim is the primary cause for the city’s high number of cancer cases.
Then there’s the problem with the air itself. Throughout the year, Sahelian dust settles on every nook and crevice of the city. In December and January, the most polluted months, an evil mixture of haze, dust, dirt and blue moto exhaust hang over the city – especially in the late afternoons – turning the sky a bizarre hue of milky white and dirty brown. This is made worse by the sand-engorged Harmattan trade winds from the Sahara desert, which can often last until February.
The IRIN story points out that, on average, Ouagadougou’s atmosphere contains an annual concentration of dust more than two times the WHO standard for a healthy environment.
The third issue regarding air pollution is cooking over open fires, which remains the preferred method of preparing food in the city. These first give off what researchers call a “poisonous cocktail of particles” roughly 500 times over the allowable limit, creating serious pulmonary problems for the cooks as well as concerns for the local environment. (The trees have to come from somewhere.)
Cooking may be seen as largely a personal issue, but for the tens of thousands of women in Ouagadougou who spend hours a day over smoky cook stoves, it’s a problem that could exaggerate other health issues stemming from Ouagadougou’s poor air.
So, how do they clean it up?
Like reducing traffic congestion elsewhere, African governments have one basic solution to clean up their air: reduce the number of vehicles on the road. One way to do this is by supporting public transport. The World Bank found that in both Abidjan and Dakar public bus transport had popular followings, until services fell, forcing people to find other means of transport.
Like elsewhere in Africa, where state service fails, small businessmen usually fill in the gaps. This World Bank researcher estimates that in Dakar alone the privately-owned public transportation sector (including mini buses, taxis, car rapides) is responsible for 30,000 jobs. If governments can find a way to keep bus public transit afloat – and in Ouagadougou it’s an issue of good governance, not the service’s unpopularity – this sector will also create jobs and keep more traffic off the roads.
This solution also has its risks. From the viewpoint of African governments, it pays to pollute. Most states collect heavy gas taxes. Also, importing cars from abroad provides as much as 10 percent of GDP for governments throughout West Africa. Moped sales also incur taxes. One could argue the long-term health of the city is far more important, but try saying that to a finance minister in a struggling state bureaucracy.
The government of Burkina Faso could cut down the size and scale of this rapidly growing city, forbid anymore immigration and build a giant dome to keep out the dust and sand. Other than that, solving the city’s air problems seems relatively easy.
One such victory was the government’s decision to implement unleaded gas. Such a move, the United Nations Environmental Programme claims, immediately reduces harmful gasoline emissions. Going unleaded is only a first step, though. Once complete, countries can then phase in catalytic converters, which UNEP claims can help reduce dangerous car emissions by 90 percent.
Then there’s the small problem with the Peugeut P50, the most popular moto using the contaminating gas-oil mixture. Today, it’s hard to tell what percentage of traffic these Burkina-made mopeds make up, but anecdotally they’re very popular, especially among those who cannot afford a larger – and faster – Chinese and Nigerian models.
That’s not to say the environment fares much better with other mobylettes. Because of the size of their engines, mopeds of all shapes are dangerous. It largely depends how well the engines are maintained, their age of the vehicle and how carefully the speed limit is followed. This doesn’t leave me very encouraged.
We haven’t said much about other transport. Since we’re at it, something should probably be done about the 20-year-old smoke and oil belching cars and trucks contaminating the streets of Ouagadougou. It’s not just the ancient taxis – although they share some the blame – many personal cars are beyond repair. Like Senegal, perhaps Burkina Faso should contemplate forbidding the import of cars past a certain age.
Much of Ouagadougou’s air problems are exacerbated by its physical environment. In a city free of automobiles, Ouagadougou's air quality would still be poor. This dangerous mixture is created when you add in the hundreds of thousands of mobylettes and other vehicles on the road. Cities around the world understand that traffic problems are never truly solved – governments' largely Band Aid solutions allow people to live with the issue. That doesn't bode well for the air of Ouagadougou.