By Antony Mutunga

Imagine living in a world where air is sold. Now stop imagining because we already live in such a world.

Some parts of China now buy bottled air from “cleaner” countries, such as Australia and Wales, as a commodity in their markets. And it is lucrative business! A can of fresh air goes for between $50 and $200 (Sh5,000 and Sh20,000), sometimes more, due to the increasing demand.

One may wonder why anyone would buy bottled air when there is free air all around us. The answer is air pollution. It has become quite the problem in the modern world as most ignore its consequences. As a result, air pollution continues to be a problem, even though it affects more than one billion people annually.

Over the past few decades, air pollution has increased because of rapid industrialisation, motorisation and urbanisation. According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution has risen by 8% in five years, with the fastest-growing cities in the developing world the most affected. This has caused emerging markets like China to start depending on innovations, for example the use of bottled air and clean air domes, to survive their polluted environments.

More than 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. For example in Kenya, the rate of urbanisation has grown by 4% every year between 2010 and 2015 according to the CIA World Factbook Report. Major cities with a population of more than a million are the most affected.

As the population grows, so does the demand for resources, creating a need for industries to cater to the needs of those populations. Owing to this industrialisation, these factories emit their toxic waste chemicals into the air that, in turn, leads to smog, which is hazardous to the people living in the cities. Apart from factories, workers in construction sites also contribute in adding dust particles in the air from their day-to-day work.

Biggest culprit

Aside from industrialisation, motorisation is the other culprit, brought about by rapid urbanisation. This is actually considered the biggest cause of air pollution in urban areas. Emissions from vehicles are responsible for about 90% of air pollution, especially in developing countries.

Even though, countries like China and India have experienced the worst effects of air pollution, Africa, on the other hand, has also been affected in no small way. Reasons for this is that many vehicles on the continent are old (many beyond 15 years), propelled by low-quality fuel, and are improperly maintained. These cars rapidly emit dangerous substances, like particulate matter and carbon monoxide, which increase the greenhouse gases already in the air. The greenhouse gases, for example carbon dioxide, are partially responsible for global warming which has been a hot topic when it comes to climate change.

Further, urbanisation has led to increased deforestation. To accommodate the growing population and expand urban areas, trees have been cut down, thereby destroying indigenous forests. This causes the level of pollutants in the air to increase because there are fewer trees to absorb these pollutants to the air clean.

Can’t beat them, join them!

Trees are also essential as they release water vapour to help keep the temperatures in check. When trees are cut down, the level of water vapour released to the air reduces causing an imbalance in the climate (hence global warming) and also causes temperatures to rise.

For instance, in Kenya, the Mau Forest is still being destroyed as farmers and loggers cut down trees for charcoal and timber. In addition, individuals whose only aim is to make a profit have grabbed some of the land of the Mau Forest for own use. It is estimated that so far a quarter of the forest, almost 100,000 acres, has been destroyed.

This is escalating to a point that other communities in the region, previously defenders of the forest, have turned a corner and began cutting down trees. Without noticing it, this is affecting the air quality of the country, besides distorting rainfall patterns.

Governments need to have laws passed to ensure that industrialisation and motorisation are kept in check. There is also need to save the forests and plant more trees to try and undo the damage done. The world needs to take these measures before it experiences the likes of the 1952 Great Smog Disaster that happened in London, killing four thousand people in a few days.  Kenya needs to protect the Mau and its other indigenous forests before we end up depending on gas masks and bottled air from countries that have seen the importance of protecting their environments. As David Suzuki said, “If we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and destroy the biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.”