Recently I met a pregnant woman who was into cashew processing in one of my ethnographic works. As I spoke with her it turned out to be a very sad conversation. She had lost two of her children within twenty-eight days of their births and had had one still birth. In her current pregnancy, she looks ill and coughs recurrently. When I inquired about what was wrong, she could not give any answer because she had not been able to seek any medical attention. I asked when she started her cashew business, and she said “about ten years ago”, meaning the two children that died and the still birth all happened while she was in the business. Due to lack of death registration in this part of the world, the cause of the death of her children was not known. However, judging from the way she was coughing, I could tell that the woman has been inhaling a lot of smoke in the course of processing the cashew nuts. This smoke has been affecting her and her children causing her series of ill health and her children to die shortly after birth. The pathetic aspect of the conversation was that when I put it to her that smoke from her business could be responsible for her condition and the death of her children, she affirmed it, confirming that she usually coughs out black soot, especially while she is pregnant. My observations while talking with her confirmed her narration.
This is exactly what more than 2 billion rural dwellers who rely on firewood for heating and cooking go through in developing countries. Wood fuel releases a number of hazardous pollutants, including carbon monoxide, sulphur, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. This predominantly inefficient cooking method is the leading cause of Indoor Air Pollution (IAP), which constitutes a lot of health issues and consequently deaths particularly for children and their mothers.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), four million women and children die prematurely in developing countries every year from cooking carbon emissions, a figure two times the total number of global deaths from Covid-19 in 2020. Nigeria experiences the highest number of in-door air pollution deaths in Africa, constituting about 79,000 deaths annually. In Nigeria, majority of the population lives in rural areas where the only method of cooking is the traditional three stone fire which requires huge amounts of firewood and produces large amount of smoke. In many households, poor ventilation arising from nonexistence of chimneys, exacerbates the effects of these pollutants, and women and children are often exposed to them at a significant level each day.
Exposure to fuel wood smoke has been implicated as a causal agent for respiratory and eye diseases, including cataract and blindness. As a result, a large number of women who do the cooking, as well as young children and infants in the vicinity of the cooking areas are mostly vulnerable. Deaths from acute lower respiratory infection in children younger than five years account for about 90% of the total number of deaths from indoor air pollution in Nigeria, exposing them to asthma, chronic lung conditions, heart attacks, strokes, headaches, fatigue, dizziness and nausea. Studies have attributed stillbirths, infant low birth weight, and adverse pregnancy outcomes in women to poor in-door air quality. Moreover, constant search for fuel wood represents a large burden for women, particularly in rural areas and makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment, abuse and rape amidst heavy insecurities and insurgencies. Understanding how women and children particularly girls are impacted by in-door air pollution in developing countries, should be a global concern.
In the 1970s, when I was growing up in my village in Ukehe, eastern Nigeria, we had asthma related emergency in my family, sometimes the attack came with other related complications like convulsion in infancy and early childhood which could have had very devastating effects on development. This kept me and my family on edge and constantly anxious. This could be attributable to our cooking practices and pollution from firewood. This situation kept my sibling (one out of eight) on asthma drugs such as Ventolin/Albuterol (also known as salbutamol) and inhalers while growing up. Fortunately, we have all grown up and are parents but memories of that trauma still punctuate our lives. With our own children here and constantly exposed to air pollutants and allergic triggers, we are even more anxious.
Earlier this year, precisely in June 2021, I lost one of my friends to respiratory complications having been a known asthmatic. The data for asthma and allergenic sufferers in Nigeria are scary. In recent time and having moved to other cities in Nigeria, I have seen worse pollution with the air quality getting worse, given that there are now more sources of air pollution; like gas flaring, illegal refining of crude, open and uncontrolled waste incineration of municipal solid wastes (MSW).
We see young people and grown ups suffering from allergic reactions and asthmatic attacks. The traumatic experience of sudden onset and attack of asthma can be devastating. In the university medical center where I worked for over 3 years, I witnessed some of the most traumatic asthma attacks, with many needing nebulization and sometimes admission. Given the poor medical infrastructural and insurance settings most of the hospitals and clinics in Nigeria operate on, it is usually a very difficult time for families and friends of sufferers.
Of greater concern is the problem of open waste burning in the streets. Equally of concern is the fact that institutions that are in place and should enforce air quality controls are ill equipped and corrupt. This leaves the enforcement undone since the persons responsible are more concerned to earn their daily living given the extent of poverty and inequality in place in Nigeria.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) air quality in Nigerian cities is generally not safe. My Nigeria has the highest percentage of air pollution death in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cities like Port Harcourt is covered in sooth emanating from gas flaring and other fossil fuel operations in the Niger Delta. According to scholars, Air pollution is a major environmental problem and relates to anthropogenic climate change which is centred on the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Cities such as Lagos, Kano, and Port Harcourt are hotspots of air pollution in Nigeria. Air pollutants emission in Nigeria are majorly from biomass fuel burning from vehicles, landfill gases, domestic cooking stove and industries. Air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM) pose mild to severe respiratory illness particularly in vulnerable persons.
One of our group members in Parents for Future Nigeria is working on improved cooking stove for women to reduce the extent of pollution women and their children are exposed to while carrying out their daily survival needs. If this is solved we will still have the problem from other sources of air pollution. That is why we add our voices and join the campaign raising awareness to call for a stop to air pollution and climate change to ensure a liveable future for our children and children all over the world.
Halima Imam from Nigeria
Children are at very high risk of diseases caused by air pollution because their bodies are still developing and their system is not yet strong enough to protect them from the adverse effect of pollution. Children are exposed to air pollution on two fronts, those in urban areas are exposed to polluted air from vehicles, plants, factories etc. And the ones in rural and suburban areas have to breathe in smoke from burning bushes to that which comes from their mother’s kitchen which is characterized by cooking with firewood. Smug and smoke filled skies have created such inconvenience in breathing for people in cities and regions that are affected by it.
There have been numerous reports about what a disaster air pollution poses for us all and most importantly, how many children will also lose their lives due to the fact that they have been denied clear blue skies and healthy air due to the activities of adults. Most developing cities in Africa chokes under clouds of pollution, it pulls down commerce and drags up the cost of healthcare. Electricity supply in most parts of Nigeria is epileptic and the people have come up with a saying “electricity is just here to support the generators”, a complete opposite of why generators have been created. Gas emitted from generators are very dangerous as they are greenhouse gases but almost every household in the country use generators on a daily basis.
Clean air is a fundamental human right and every child deserves to view the blue skies without any obstruction of their view from snug or smoke covering the atmosphere. Climate friendly policies by policy makers and signed into law by the government will go a long way in purifying the air we breathe. Governments especially in parts of Africa and most parts of Asia also has to also put in place air quality measures and cleaning mechanisms in place. Tree planting automatically gets the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as they act as carbon sinks. Taking public transport, carpooling, using bicycles and taking walks will certainly reduce our carbon footprints.
We must rethink our sources of energy, we are long overdue in our transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy like solar, wind and geothermal. An available future is a sustainable one but we will even have the right to dream of a future once we have eco-friendly transportation, start erecting more green buildings and help poor societies get clean energy like briquettes and biochar for cooking. People must be encouraged to have indoor plants to help mitigate indoor pollution and plant more trees around their houses and living spaces. A society is evaluated based on how they treat their young and if we allow our children to keep dying from air pollution that they haven’t caused, then that tells just what kind of a person we are.