Home South African Concern over state of SA’s air quality monitoring network

Concern over state of SA’s air quality monitoring network

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Alarm bells have been sounded over the state of South Africa’s air quality monitoring stations following revelations that only 25 of 130 stations are adequately reporting data in compliance with the national regulations.

Over 80 of South Africa’s air quality monitoring stations are non-operational. File picture

ALARM bells have been sounded over the state of South Africa’s air quality monitoring stations following revelations that only 25 of 130 stations are adequately reporting data in compliance with the national regulations.

The information about the country’s air quality monitoring network came to light during the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) portfolio committee meeting recently.

Committee member Hannah Shameema, from the DA, said that of the 130 government-controlled air quality monitoring stations across the country, 21 stations were not operational at all while 84 were operational but failing to adequately report data.

“This leaves only 25 operational stations that are adequately reporting data according to national regulations,” she said.

Shameema said the Air Quality Act stipulates that it is the responsibility of government bodies to ensure clean air and the protection of public health.

“The act requires the monitoring of air quality and the dissemination of information to the public as well as the implementation of air quality management plans to ensure compliance with national standards. The current situation, where 84 of the 109 stations are non-operational, is a flagrant disregard of these legal obligations,” she said.

Shameema said the SA Weather Service (Saws), responsible for air quality monitoring stations in the Highveld priority area, a region known for its poor air quality, was procuring a back-up energy supply to ensure that data was available.

However, she said the lack of a clear time frame for when this back-up would be operational was unacceptable.

DFFE’s chief director of communications, Peter Mbelengwa, said the department was aware of the situation, adding that there were several factors contributing to the under-performance of some of the monitoring stations. These included theft and inconsistent power supply exacerbated by load shedding.

“The department as well as other spheres of government have put in place several interventions to ensure adequate operation of the monitoring stations and reporting of data according to national regulations,” he said.

These include improving security at monitoring stations by relocating those at risk of vandalism and theft to secure locations and investing in back-up power systems at monitoring stations to ensure continued operations during load shedding.

He said another was establishing an intervention programme where Saws would be resourced to manage several monitoring stations on behalf of the government.

“This intervention will leverage on the technical capacity of the entity that has been built over the years in managing monitoring stations in the air quality priority areas,” he said.

Another intervention, he said, was improving air quality monitoring coverage by partnering with the private sector to incorporate industry-owned air quality monitoring data in the SA Air Quality Information System.

“To date, over 60 private stations are reporting to this national system.”

The weather service said all five stations within the Highveld national priority area were functional, four in the Waterberg-Bojanala priority area and the six in the Vaal Triangle priority area.

Saws said air quality monitoring instruments were sensitive, and shutting them down and switching them back on required anything from 20 minutes to four hours to stabilise before they were ready for operation.

“The operation of ambient air quality monitoring stations is dependent on an uninterrupted power supply from the national grid. The frequent implementation of load shedding has, over the last few months, had a negative impact on air quality monitoring infrastructure.

This has resulted in damage to equipment and subsequent data loss.

“It is envisaged that, once installed, the battery back-up system will increase the uptime of the systems and prevent loss of power during load shedding while helping maintain the integrity of the equipment and preventing damage to sensitive components as a result of power surges.”

Environmental justice organisation Groundwork said that without adequately functioning and accredited monitoring stations, it was not known whether the air quality was actually far worse than it appeared.

The organisation said air quality (AQ) monitoring was considered a best practice procedure in assessing the impact of air pollution on health in South Africa.

“Regardless of the poor state of the air quality monitoring network, we know that actual air quality in the DFFE declared priority areas of South Africa (including the Vaal, the Highveld and the Waterberg) remains poor and out of compliance with health-based national ambient air quality standards.”

“Without reliable AQ monitoring we cannot undertake accurate estimates of the health impacts of air pollution and related interventions which are the foundation for tackling air pollution efficiently, seriously and sustainably.”

The organisation said to build trust in the integrity of the management of the priority and polluted areas, and enable meaningful and informed participation by all stakeholders, there must be far greater transparency about regulation, monitoring and compliance in the priority and polluted areas.

“The air quality monitoring station network must urgently be improved upon and adequately managed and maintained so as to produce verified, reliable priority and polluted areas air quality data that are readily and publicly available,” said Groundwork.

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