Dar es Salaam-- At the ‘Mobilize’ conference in Dar es Salaam last week, UN-Habitat, UN Environment and WHO, presented the results of a new collaboration on air quality in African cities.  UN-Habitat was present in a number of sessions in particular two key segments on “Breathe Life: A Global Air Quality Campaign” and “Better Urban Air Quality and Health: Transformative Tools and Tactics”. Entitled ‘Mobilize’, this edition of the annual Sustainable Transport Summit organized by the Institute for Transportation and Development, brought together urban transport and development practitioners alongside world class researchers focusing on transformative improvement to transit. Dar es Salaam is emblematic of such transformation through it new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and the summit, located in Africa, was an opportunity to take a closer look at African cities and sensitize decision-makers to the transport related challenges they face and the solutions that can be implemented.

While the conference focused on mobility and transport planning, air pollution was highlighted as a central issue, with detrimental and increasing impacts on urban dwellers. With unprecedented urban growth, Africa is likely to face an increasingly serious urban air pollution challenge, that could soon result in more premature deaths than unsafe water or childhood malnutrition. Traffic congestion, power generation, industrial activity, the use of solid fuels for cooking, and poor waste management, are all likely to be contributing to this silent killer in Africa.

UN-Habitat seized this opportunity to engage in a closer collaboration with UN-Environment and the World Health Organization on issues related to urbanization, environment and health, with a closer look at the impacts of air pollution on urban and health policies, as well as environmental management in cities. In particular, UN-Habitat highlighted its particular role on transport and mobility planning, basic services and urban infrastructure, in relation with climate change. Improving air quality means addressing sprawling, dysfunctional cities, and planning for growth in the fast urbanizing region that is Africa. A robust approach to the overwhelming challenges is needed, and an inclusive, long-range planning that fully integrates air quality is required.

In the last months, in preparation for the summit, UN-Habitat’s Climate Change and Planning Unit, with UNEP and WHO, has focused on five cities - Accra, Cairo, Cape Town, Dakar and Nairobi - and prepared case studies to be released before the end of the year. One of the main challenges raised in the upcoming publication is the lack of data on air quality that paralyses decision-making while there is a clear urgency for cities to face considerable air pollution in the coming years with tremendous impacts on populations.

Together, the three UN agencies want to tackle air quality issues and advance climate change action through coherent and mutually reinforcing agendas, capitalizing on their complementary expertise. Air pollution is one of the greatest health challenges in cities around the world, and the ‘Mobilize’ summit has offered an instrumental platform to raise awareness on the issue.