Keynote address by Deputy Minister Makhotso Magdeline Sotyu at the 16th Annual Air Quality Governance Lekgotla
Premier Hotel, OR Thambo International Airport, Kempton Park,City of Ekurhuleni, Gauteng Province
04 October 2022
Program Director: Acting Deputy Director General for Climate Change and Air Quality Management: Mr Tlou Ramaru
It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the 2022 Annual Air Quality Governance Lekgotla under the theme strengthening air quality management systems.
Air pollution is a global challenge affecting both the developed and emerging economies. It affects human health, biodiversity, land and water systems, and has been shown to decrease agricultural yields.
The Constitution entrenches the right to environmental protection, most notably an environment that is not harmful to the health or well–being of all. To ensure that this right is put into practice, a number of significant strides have been made with regard to air quality management in terms of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act in 2005. This robust measure emphasises the importance of cooperative governance structures and measurable investments in air quality monitoring infrastructure – all key to ensuring that our air is breathable and not harmful to anyone. This the importance of this Air Quality Governance Lekgotla, which had become probably the most important platform for government air quality officials to meet and discuss progress and challenges at all levels of government related to ensuring clean air.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Despite strides in legislative developments, air quality continues to be a national challenge. The historical urban planning and segregations legacy of South Africa means that unhealthy pollution levels are often highest in low-income communities, such as townships, in urban areas, and in areas close to large industries. Our monitoring stations measurements show that particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and ozone continue to be the key criteria pollutants of concern, especially in the three priority areas of the Vaal Triangle, the Highveld and Waterberg-Bojanala region, as well as in our cities and towns.
Our air is affected by pollutants emitted from numerous sources, particularly industries, from power generation, mining operations, the transport sector, waste burning and from households, especially those still reliant on wood burning for heat and power.
Air pollution levels in some areas are often over the legal thresholds specified in our National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Exceeding these indicates that part of the population is exposed to air quality that is potentially detrimental to their health and well-being, especially within the three declared priority areas and our cities.
Earlier this year, the high court handed down a judgement against the government in what is commonly referred to as a Deadly Air case declaring that the poor air quality in the Highveld priority area is in breach of residents' Constitutional Right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being. This application was brought by environmental justice groups in Mpumalanga Highveld is an indictment on all spheres of government. The application was a clear indication that the general public and civil society are becoming more and more aware of the impact of poor air quality on the health of citizens and the environment.
But, this judgement was also a watershed. It calls on government to fast-track improvements in air quality management and to ensure that we uphold the constitutional rights for all citizens. It requires of government to strengthen our air quality management systems, especially by capacitating the State in the implementation of legislation, the introducing of air pollution reduction programs, improvement in the management of monitoring infrastructure, and in authorisation and compliance monitoring.
In fast-tracking those improvements, priority area regulations are to be submitted to minister in due course. These will provide the much-needed mechanisms to improve accountability and enforcement of priority areas air quality management plans and implementation thereof. Thus the importance and suitability of the theme of this Lekgotla of Strengthening Air Quality Management Systems.
Ladies and gentlemen,
To improve air quality, air pollution from all sources must be reduced through bankable commitments. Sources of air pollution are diverse and complex, hence reducing it requires a multitude of interventions and a strong commitment by all stakeholders – government, the private sector, and communities.
Your deliberation on crafting a National Emission Reduction Framework during this Lekgotla must provide a solution to the challenge of meeting the National Ambient Air Quality Standards within a reasonable time. In addition, the Framework must provide for an efficient and coordinated effort by all spheres of government and the affected stakeholders to implement the approved air quality management plans.
While concerted efforts have been made to bring the priority areas to compliance, emissions of certain pollutants continue to result in persistent poor air quality. The Priority Area Regulations I mentioned earlier will assist in implementation and enforcement of air quality management plans. Through these regulations, all polluters will be required to commit to emission reduction programs that will be continuously evaluated and monitored. While these regulations are for the three declared priority areas, such mechanisms must be emulated in other areas where air pollution remains a challenge.
Air quality monitoring stations have continued to face increasing pressure due to escalating operational and maintenance costs, vandalism, and the fact that much of the equipment being used is aging. While many provinces and municipalities have invested in recapitalising the infrastructure, performance reports show that more investment is required to ensure that all stations are fully operational.
To support this, the department is engaging with the National Treasury for an intervention that will be implemented through the South African Weather Service to assist government in the management of monitoring stations. It will also assist in building capacity in much-needed technical expertise in the long-term.
Implementation of air quality management functions requires a capable state, especially at local government level, the frontline for implementation. This Lekgotla must take forward recommendations on municipal organisational structures for consideration.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the coming days you will be deliberating on a number of sub-themes, such as establishing effective municipal organisation structures and resources – an important discussion given that underperformance in implementing air quality management functions is the result of many factors. These include inadequate human capacity and lack of technical skills at municipal and provincial levels to effectively undertake the functions and constraints in financial resources allocated to air quality management functions. In addition, air quality management functions are not regarded as service essential to improving quality of life; therefore, receiving little attention or prioritisation at municipal level. So what are we doing to assist municipalities? The Department’s Local Government Support Programme is developing a framework to assist municipalities in outlining environmental functions, with performance indicators, financial and organisational structure requirements per municipal category in line with legislative mandates. Your discussion on a topic such as this will guide implementation of this important framework.
I note another sub-theme for deliberation of odour and noise management. In recent years, and twice this year in Gauteng alone, citizens have experienced increased occurrences of sulphurous odour episodes, which have been a cause of complaints to government, and on social media and media. The department has subsequently convened a Hydrogen Sulphide Task Team comprising officials of the air quality management chief directorate, the Green Scorpions and air quality officers in the Gauteng, Northwest and Free State provinces to investigate the sources of the odour, and to provide sustainable long-term solutions. Although intermittent, the occurrence of these odours, which cause breathing problems for some, points to odour management broadly. This is an emerging issue that requires sectoral engagement in terms of a management approach.
This matter, and issues such as improvements in the processing of, for example, atmospheric emission licensing, and the enforcement of these, requires continuous engagement by the licensing authorities and the licence holders.
According to the IPCC 6th assessment report, Africa remains amongst the world’s regions most vulnerable to climate change.
As a country, we face a double burden of worsening air quality, and climate vulnerability. Action plans to give immediate effect to a just transition by shifting to cleaner and more competitive energy generation technologies, as well as the reducing emissions intensity of the economy to achieve net zero carbon dioxide by 2050, have direct benefits to reducing air pollution. This Lekgotla will do well to explore how these efforts will contribute to improved coordination of these efforts.
In closing, I would like to re-emphasise that air pollution impacts on health require immediate interventions, particularly because the Constitutional right to healthy air has been confirmed by Deadly Air judgement to be a matter that requires our attention now.
As we pledge to continue working to meet our Constitutional and legislative responsibilities, we need to remember that we all have an obligation to ensure that our people have healthy air to breathe.
I wish you well in your deliberations.