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Monday Jul 11, 2016

Township air pollution plan on the back burner

Winter in poor communities means coal and wood fires for warmth and cooking, but it also means massive smoke pollution.

Smoke pollution occurs in many densely populated areas of South Africa where winter requires people to keep warm with coal and wood fires.

The air quality in some parts of South Africa is so bad that it threatens human health and the environment. Those in poor, densely populated settlements are worst off.

"Air pollution is known to cause illnesses such as bronchitis, asthma exacerbation, underweight babies, cardiovascular diseases and death," said the Department of Environmental Affairs in a new draft strategy document on combating air pollution in densely populated poor communities.

"People living below the poverty line bear practically the entire burden of this health risk."

Some of the worst-affected communities were Orange Farm, Soweto, Evaton, Sebokeng, Sharpeville, Boipatong, Bophelong and Zamdela, the document said.

But the difficulty is finding a solution to the main cause, which is that poor households burn dirty fuels like wood and coal for warmth and energy, simply because they cannot afford anything else.

The department's plans are sketchy and still in the early phase: a draft strategy is not even a Green Paper, which is the first formal step in making new legislation.

The proposals include setting up a national co-ordinating committee on residential air pollution, providing "affordable or subsidised" clean energy alternatives, and ensuring that low-income households are energy efficient.

It suggests that in dense low-income communities, priorities should also include better road surfaces – tar instead of dirt, general greening activities, regular refuse removal, electrification and tree planting.

The department wants energy efficiency built into at least half of all new low-income housing in the next two years, and in at least 80 percent of these homes by 2020.

It wants the state and private sector together to provide "appropriate energy alternatives" to at least 25 percent of the households in pollution priority areas within two years and to at least 75 percent by 2020.

While electricity is a clean alternative for the users, many of the problem settlements are off the grid and residents can't afford the electricity.

The document proposes free basic electricity (FBE) for the poor, such as matching one paid unit with one free unit of power, or a stepped tariff offering indigent households the first stepped amount free, without any reference to the existing FBE system which has been in place for two decades.

Clean energy alternatives suggested include solar water heaters, saying that poor communities tend to burn coal and wood not only for heating and cooking but also for heating water.

Referring to a nine-yearold press clip, the document says that "while significant research has gone into clean cook stoves, cooking fuels and cooking methods, these have not yet been rolled out widely in South Africa".

Again, what's available isn't affordable for the poor.

There's a brief suggestion of subsidised liquid petroleum gas, another expensive option.

The suggestions on energy-efficient, low-cost homes include "adequate insulation", noting that since 2009, the state-provided low-cost houses have ceilings and electricity to address this.

Getting interventions under way will need what the document calls "a considerable amount of funding".

The brief section on funding refers vaguely to "repriorisation of existing government budget allocations", new funding from industries that generate air pollution through "formal offset agreements" and donor support.

In 2013 and 2014, The Star reported on the department's new green building, built to order in Pretoria as its new head office.

At the time the department confirmed that the building would cost about R8 billion over 27 years, including two years of construction costs of R685 million, plus operating costs for the next 25 years.

It could not clearly explain the costs at the time.

The Star


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