As C40’s first-ever African Mayoral Champion for Air Quality, Mayor of Durban, Mxolisi Kaunda penned a ‘Letter to Air’ to mark the United Nations International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies.

Riverine restoration programme in Durban (eThekwini). The photo shows a riverside scene with trees, homes and people enjoying a community space. Photo courtesy of Durban eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality.
© Durban eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality

Breathing clean air is a human right. As a mayor of an African city, one of my top priorities is protecting our residents from the devastating consequences of air pollution. Air pollution and the climate crisis are closely related – and both challenges need our immediate and collective action to remove the pollution harming our health and heating our planet. 

If we could make the invisible visible, we would see that air pollution leaves the dirty fingerprints of our energy use wafting across our cities and into our lungs: smoke and fumes from industrial fuel burning, mining operations, vehicle exhaust, waste burning and cooking or heating fires in households that lack affordable modern energy access. 

As C40’s first-ever African Mayoral Champion for Air Quality, I know that we can no longer turn a blind eye to the injustice of air pollution. Air pollution is deadly, and it is also expensive. Satellite data and air quality monitors have helped reveal that 90% of people worldwide breathe unclean air, and this pollution is linked to 7 million deaths that could have been prevented each year. It also causes illnesses that impact city public health budgets, including in Durban. 

Despite overwhelming evidence of air pollution’s harm, the situation in Africa has worsened over the past decade, causing numerous deaths that we could have avoided. For too long, we have polluted and dirtied the air we share. For too long, we have been ignorant of the impacts of dirty air on our people and our planet. 

Durban faces a double burden of worsening air quality and climate vulnerability as a city. Air quality disproportionately affects vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing health conditions. In South Africa, the cities’ historical urban planning and segregation legacy means that unhealthy air pollution levels are often highest in low-income communities, urban areas, and areas close to large industries. Data from the air quality monitoring network in Durban shows that particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide remain the key criteria pollutants of concern, especially in the South Durban Basin area. 

The city is responding by managing air quality based on data. We monitor and analyse air quality through a network of monitoring stations, which provide real-time data on pollutants and give us the scientific basis to formulate and implement targeted measures to reduce emissions from top sources. 

While we’ve made good progress, there’s much more to be done, starting with continued investment in monitoring and data collection infrastructure to ensure accurate and up-to-date information on pollutant levels. Strengthening and enforcing emission standards for industries, vehicles, and other pollution sources are essential to curb air pollution. 

We must take action to understand our air pollution problem better, find ways to control air pollution at its sources, protect people from exposure to dirty air, evaluate the health impacts and determine how our local economy, geography, demographics, and city powers shape all these factors. Clean and healthy air for all can only be achieved by forging strong partnerships between cities and regional and national authorities. Exchanging best practices and coordinating action will assist in addressing the sources of air pollution within and beyond our borders. 

I am proud to be C40’s first-ever African Mayoral Champion for Air Quality. In this capacity, I call on my fellow mayors of all African cities to meet our Constitutional, legislative, and socio-economic responsibilities: We must ensure that our people have healthy air to breathe.

Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda

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