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Yaoundé and air pollution

From pollution to solution in Africa's cities: The case for investing in air pollution and climate change together.

Yaoundé is Cameroon’s political and administrative capital and second largest city with 3.8 million people. It accounts for 15% of GDP and houses approximately 15% of the country’s population. The city is situated on a hilly plateau between two rivers in the south-central part of the country.

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The city’s service sector has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, expanding from ~$570m in 2013 to ~$2bn by 2017. The sector accounts for about 34% of the city’s total GDP and 53% of the city’s formal sector GDP.

Although difficult to quantify, the informal economy plays a substantial role in Yaoundé, contributing roughly 17% of the city’s GDP. The capital’s informal economy is dominated by small scale food production, ad-hoc construction and product processing (e.g., textiles, chemicals, furniture, cement), much of which takes place in the city’s many markets.

Yaoundé still faces significant challenges concerning its air quality. The annual average PM2.5 concentration in Yaoundé in 2019 was 7.5 times higher than WHO 2021 recommended concentration levels. Over 90% of its road network remains unpaved, leading to high levels of resuspended dust from road traffic. In addition, heavy traffic from an ageing vehicle fleet (95% of the city’s vehicles are second-hand), industry (e.g., cement manufacturing and wood processing), and the use of biomass fuels in homes heavily contribute to the city’s PM2.5 concentration. 

Compounding these pollution sources are the seasonal winds that carry dust from the Sahara Desert during the Harmattan season. During these four months, the PM2.5 concentration can increase by as much as 65% above the average outside of this period.

While some action has been taken, limited coordination across government and sectors hinders effective air pollution action. Both Yaoundé and Cameroon as a whole lack air quality plans and enforcement mechanisms, particularly in industrial regulation. However, individual interventions targeting specific sources of pollution are being implemented, many of which are funded by external partners (e.g., Agence Française de Développement (AFD), STEMA Energie) as proof of concept or pilot projects. Nonetheless, there is a need to scale these initiatives to city-wide action once they have been tested and evidenced.

Major sources of air pollution

Road traffic

Road traffic stands as the largest source of air pollution in Yaoundé, accounting for ~48% of PM2.5 emissions. This is primarily due to the high volumes of motorised transport in the metropolitan area, which rely on outdated and polluting technologies and low-quality fuel types. Each day, Yaoundé’s residents make around 8 million trips, with over two-thirds using motorised forms of transportation. Most of these trips are made using taxis, with private cars responsible for only 10% of journeys, and buses/minibuses playing a limited role in intra-city travel. Road traffic emissions are compounded by the city’s poor transport infrastructure and road networks, with frequent traffic bottlenecks forming due to the lack of well-connected asphalt roads.

Historically, the city has seen low levels of public investment into accessible public transport. As a result, residents are forced to rely on expensive and often polluting forms of transport, namely taxis. It is estimated residents spend about USD 600m on mobility per year, while only USD 30m of public funds are invested in mobility annually.

Yaoundé has high rates of imported second-hand vehicles, many of which do not meet emission standards, due to the lower cost compared to the importation of new vehicles. Vehicular emissions are especially acute around major trunk roads such as the Route Nationale 1 (RN1), which is a primary route for logging trucks and crosses the city causing major congestion points in areas such as Emana and Nkoabang.

Traffic-related emissions are further exacerbated by resuspended dust. As of 2021, only 300 km of the city’s 2700km of road (~10%) was asphalted. Driving on these surfaces generates higher levels of dust and particles. In the few districts with more asphalted streets, such as the diplomatic quarter of Bastos, lower levels of PM2.5 concentrations are recorded.

To address some of these challenges, the city government has adopted a road network renovation plan, known as the Yaoundé Sustainable Mobility Plan (PMUS), worth $970m, with support from AFD, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is also working to promote green mobility within Yaoundé, by reshaping transport networks and providing high-quality popular transport.

Biomass fuel burning 

Biomass fuels for household cooking and heating represent the second-largest source of air pollution in Yaoundé, accounting for 19% of PM2.5 concentrations. Within lower income households, approximately ~90% rely on firewood for some or all of their heating and cooking needs, which generates significant quantities of household air pollution (HAP). In 2017, indoor pollution accounted for 50% of all deaths in Cameroon attributable to air pollution

Beyond use in households, biomass is also a common fuel source in the city’s markets. This is especially evident in markets such as Mokolo, where fish is traditionally smoked using sawdust in the open air. Women are disproportionately affected, as they make up as high as 94% of traders in these markets across the country. 

While cooking gas has a high upfront cost to purchase and requires the ownership of a stove, the overall cost of wood and charcoal compared to gas is similar. In 2019, the city municipality launched 9 micro biogas plants to meet the cooking energy demands of 135 low-income households. After its successful demonstration, this paved the way for other projects to build industrial-scale plants, notably ENERGIE PLUS. And across the country, the government plans to triple the rate of Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) use by 2030. With investments of $392m to strengthen the infrastructure around LPG use.

Across the country, the government plans to triple the rate of LPG use by 2030 with investments of $392m to strengthen the infrastructure around LPG use. However, LPG use is currently limited by a lack of supply, with the 34,000 tons produced locally each year only enough to meet a fifth of domestic gas needs.

Mismanagement of waste

Improper waste management is also a big source of air pollution in the city (~8%). Currently, only about 60% of the generated waste is collected by the city’s waste management provider, Hysacam, due to lack of road accessibility and budget. Consequently, many households and small businesses resort to burning their waste in the open. The nature of this waste, which includes plastic and organic waste, has severe impacts on surrounding air quality. Furthermore, only 15% of the city’s waste is recycled.

The current city strategy for waste management remains insufficient, prompting city districts to explore solutions on a more local scale. The Yaoundé V Town Hall, for example, has implemented the Hyper Clean Sarl project, which involves hiring 400 young waste collectors who also educate residents on waste management and pollution.

Other causes of air pollution 

Industrial activity in Yaoundé encompasses several highly polluting processes. Among these processes, energy generation from the city’s five power plants stands out. To cope with ever-increasing demand, some power plants, such as the Oyomabang thermal plant, have resorted to using heavy fuel oil. Although more economical, this shift has resulted in higher pollution levels. Other industrial activities contributing to air pollution in the city include cement production, breweries, sawmills, paper mills, and a large number of SMEs using diesel generators (often as a backup to grid power).

Health and financial impact of air pollution in Yaoundé 

The visualisation above shows the financial cost of air pollution related to premature mortality and absenteeism in 2019 and the projected impacts under a business-as-usual scenario.

In Yaoundé, approximately 3,300 premature deaths (roughly 19% of the total) were attributable to air pollution in 2019. Among children between the ages of 2 and 5, only severe malaria and sepsis rank higher.

While Cameroon has developed a National Climate Change Policy that emphasises the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and promotes sustainable energy practices, air quality specific plans and policies are yet to be developed.

Yaoundé itself has started taking action against air pollution, albeit in a piecemeal manner. The city requires comprehensive coordination across various sectors and stakeholders, as well as the scaling up of pilot and demonstration projects to achieve city-wide coverage. Behavioural change campaigns are also needed to educate the public on the health, economic, and environmental impacts of air pollution.

Impact of clean air policies  that reduce air pollution and GHG emissions

The cumulative impact between 2023-2040 from implementing the identified clean air interventions could save Yaoundé ~$224m, which is about 63% of the Cameroonian government’s total healthcare budget in 2018 ($356m). A further 3,500 deaths could be reduced, as well as GHG emissions abated by 80Mt of CO2e, equivalent to ~114% of Cameroon’s current GHG emissions.

These actions will help steer the city towards more equitable and fairer living conditions for all city residents. PM2.5 concentrations vary significantly across various parts of the city. Higher income neighbourhoods, with better paved road infrastructure and waste management, often experience lower levels of air pollution, as do neighbourhoods in the south-west thanks to favourable prevailing winds.

With external support, Yaoundé has begun to recognise the importance of acting on air pollution and is open to partnerships to advance this space. In 2020, My Urban City, a partnership between DVDH and ATMOTrack, launched a pollution control report for Yaoundé, with key recommendations across road transport (e.g., improving the vehicle fleet and fuel quality), use of biomass fuels (e.g., installing collective clean ovens in food markets) and industrial emissions (e.g., applying stricter enforcement on existing industry regulations), among others.

Go to next section: 9. Recommendations

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