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City plan for cleaner air and better health

SEI is helping develop legislation on air quality in Nairobi to improve the lives of the city’s most vulnerable people.

Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

Date published
24 June 2019
A story from
Nairobi, Kenya

This impact story is from our 2018 annual report.

In Nairobi, as in many fast-growing cities around the world, air quality is poor and getting worse. The major sources of pollution are open burning of waste, vehicle emissions, industrial emissions and traditional household cooking. Toxic fumes such as particulate matter, nitrous oxide and black carbon cause serious health problems and are also linked to premature birth and low birth weight.

In Kenya, the number of reported cases of diseases of the respiratory system increased by 63% over a four-year period from 12.2 million in 2012 to 19.9 million in 2016. The health impacts of air pollution disproportionately affect the poor and vulnerable and are a serious drag on development and economic progress.

Action for Nairobi and its most exposed communities

Tackling the problem is now a priority for the Nairobi City County and the Government of Kenya. Yet while there are legal and policy frameworks for addressing air pollution at the national level, until now there has been no policy or plan for managing it at the city level, even though the constitution devolves air pollution control to the county governments.

To help address these challenges, SEI Africa partnered with the Nairobi City County Government, Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry and UN Environment to develop an air quality policy and air quality action plan for Nairobi County.

A man beneath a polluted sky in Nairobi

Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

Both processes were slated for completion by May 2019, and they should provide a framework for the county government to coordinate all interventions on air quality and to harmonize these with the work of national government agencies responsible for related sectors, including energy, waste management and transport.

David Makori, Chief Officer for Environment and Natural Resources, Nairobi City County said, “The support given by SEI Africa to the Nairobi County City Government has come at a very critical time. We are experiencing increased air pollution in the city, especially from vehicle traffic, waste burning and industry. The policy and action plan will provide a roadmap to enable the county government and stakeholders to take action to improve air quality and the health of city residents.”

The support given by SEI Africa to the Nairobi City County has come at a very critical time. The policy and action plan is a roadmap to enable the county government and stakeholders to take action to improve air quality and the health of city residents.

Working with local communities

SEI staff have also worked alongside local people in Nairobi’s Mukuru informal settlements in a citizen science project. As well as providing data on air pollution levels in the community, SEI’s research has revealed the drivers of personal and community exposure, and people’s perception and daily experience of air pollution and its impact on the community. Both the quantitative and the qualitative information has been key to Nairobi’s efforts to tackle air pollution.

Dr Alfredo Owiti, Head of Clinical Services with Nairobi City County Government, said, “It has been our experience that diseases directly or indirectly linked to air quality account for the main clinical burden across all county healthcare facilities. Engagement with SEI has provided quality on-site information helping the county address logistical challenges. This engagement is crucial as the health sector prepares its Integrated Health Development Plan for the next five years.”

A model for tackling urban pollution across Africa?

SEI, together with UNEP, is developing a new project that will combine satellite data and ground-based sensors to provide air pollution information to policy-makers and extend the work, using Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Cape Town and Dakar as pilot cities.

SEI’s William Apondo, lead researcher in the air pollution work in Nairobi, said, “One limitation of our past work has been a focus on one type of pollution in isolation, without considering others, like water, soil and noise pollution, which if taken together cause cumulative risks to communities. In the next phase of our research we will start to explore what we call “compound pollution”, using transdisciplinary approaches to assess cumulative risks in communities.”

SDG 3

Good health and well-being

Human well-being is one of the ultimate aims of SEI’s work. Our research explores the connections between human health and environmental sustainability. Our work has made particular contributions to policies on air pollution, access to sanitation and maternal health.

SDG3 co-benefits. SDG3 is connected to SDGs 1, 7 and 11.

Connecting to the SDGs

Joined-up action on air pollution has a long history at SEI and we have continued to innovate, working with people in Nairobi exposed to some of the city’s worst pollution to generate data and insights for effective municipal policy, as well as contributing to policy design. Dealing with urban air pollution not only contributes to health goals; it also has an impact on poverty (Goal 1) and creates more liveable cities (Goal 11). There are strong connections with the provision of clean and renewable energy (Goal 7).