Photo by Ninno JackJr on Unsplash

Air Pollution in Kampala, Uganda

If no concrete action is taken soon, the capital of the Pearl of Africa will become almost inhabitable in a few decades from now.
Uganda, Eastern Africa

Story by Anna Adima
Published on May 2, 2020. Reading time: 4 minutes

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Like most people living and moving about in my home town of Kampala, Uganda (where I am currently based for my PhD fieldwork), I breathe in more than my allotted daily share of a toxic combination of dust, car exhaust fumes, and industry smoke that make up the city’s air pollution.

Kampala is the capital of Uganda, and with its annual growth rate of 4.03% and population of 1.6 million, is one of the world’s fastest growing cities. The combination of industry growth and urbanisation are accompanied by increased numbers of vehicles: approximately 50,000 – which include cars, buses, trucks, and motorcycle taxis – move about in the streets of Kampala. Many of these are old and not designed with the environment in mind, and, along with hazardous industry waste, contribute to the city’s air pollution crisis. Other toxic waste also stems from waste burning and indoor air pollution within households, where wood or charcoal stoves are used for cooking.

Kampala is the second most polluted city in Africa (preceded by Kano, Nigeria): with its PM 2.5 (particulate matter pollutants that are 2.5 microns in size, and with the most dangerous health impact of all air pollutants) pollution at an average of 40.8 µg/m³ in 2018, this is well above the World Health Organisation’s recommended target of 10 µg/m³. The effects of these different forms of air pollution can be felt across Kampala on a daily basis. When I find myself on higher ground on one of the city’s seven hills, a thick cloud of smog can be seen hanging over and choking Kampala. Being stuck in the city’s harrowing traffic means exposure to the lethal exhaust fumes produced by the surrounding vehicles. Outdoor movement can be dangerous: the biggest risk posed to walking, cycling, or running once used to be being hit by a vehicle, or being assaulted – this now comes with the perils of breathing in hazardous air (and it is for this reason I choose to exercise indoors here). Unsurprisingly, respiratory health issues are also on the rise here, as the number of deaths linked to air pollution in Uganda in 2017 was at 13,000.

Local news demonstrates an awareness of the dangers of air pollution across Kampala and Uganda. Various news outlets call for action, with academics and the Kampala Capital City Authority making efforts to educate the public about the poison they are inhaling. In 2018, the Ugandan government passed a law banning the import of cars older than 15 years, with the aim of reducing pollution in the country, and owners of cars older that five years are required to pay an environmental tax.  

But is this enough to combat air pollution? Walking and using public transport in Uganda, associated with working classes, are often looked down upon by the haves the city. Public transport is also not necessarily the safest – or the most reliable – means of transport, and women especially are more vulnerable to harassment and assault using them (It is sad that many women in my acquaintance have experienced this). A two-fold shift is required: one that makes public transport safer, more accessible, and inclusive of marginalised individuals in the urban space, as well as a change in the mentality that public transport is solely the reserve of the poor.

Of course, these are only small solutions to a very large problem. But if no concrete action is taken soon, the capital of the Pearl of Africa will become almost inhabitable in a few decades from now.


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Anna Adima

Anna Adima

Of German-Ugandan heritage, Anna is a PhD student at the University of York in the UK, where she is researching East African History. She is particularly interested in women’s history, heritage preservation, and issues surrounding race and feminism. With stints in Mwanza, The Hague, Toulouse, London, and Nairobi – in between returning to her ‘passport countries’ – Anna is privileged to have called different places around the world home. When she is not covered in dust looking at old documents in historical archives, Anna enjoys drinking coffee, swimming, and can often be found curled up in her favourite spot on the couch reading a book. She tweets @anna_adima.

Topic: Environment




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