A significant cost of air pollution on the Egyptian economy has nearly doubled since the last comprehensive report in 1990, with annual total welfare losses estimated at US$17 billion or 3.58 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product, according to a report on air pollution and the global economy published on Thursday by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics.
Aggregating data on premature death, illness and welfare costs, the report estimates that air pollution costs the global economy approximately US$5.1 trillion per year, as 87 percent of the world’s population, consisting predominantly of the poor, lives in areas that exceed the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines. In the Middle East, welfare losses have been estimated at 2.2 percent of GDP, the lowest charted for a region by the World Bank.
Air pollution has also been found to cause one in 10 deaths worldwide, making it the fourth leading global risk factor, although one that is felt most acutely in developing countries where it is responsible for 93 percent of deaths and nonfatal illnesses.
The report measures air pollution according to the amount of atmospheric particulate matter (PM), which are microscopic solid or liquid particles that are suspended in the atmosphere, in two fields: ambient air pollution (AAP) and household air pollution (HAP). These particles can be present due to natural causes, such as volcanic eruptions, or man-made emissions. The World Health Organization’s air quality guideline sets 10 micrograms per cubic meter as the safe global standard.
While Egypt has seen declines in HAP – dropping by 94.9 percent from 1990 to 2013 – and the number of deaths attributed to air pollution – falling from 40,881 in 1990 to 39,118 in 2013 – the country’s AAP levels are more than three and a half times higher than the WHO standard, having risen slightly from 35.92 micrograms in 1990 to 36.41 in 2013.
According to Sarah Rifaat, an environmental activist, Egypt’s infrastructure severely limits the country’s ability to adequately deal with air pollution. She says there are civil society groups that attempt to reduce emissions, but many of these efforts are hampered due to the fact that there are few available alternatives. While many people may want to cycle, for instance, roads have not been built with that purpose in mind. Curbing the rise of car ownership in Egypt and developing a better mass transit system would allow citizens to use more viable alternatives, according to Rifaat.
To measure the impact of disease, health organizations often refer to the Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALY) metric, which estimates the years of ‘healthy’ life lost due to a number of factors which include disease, disability and mental health. Air pollution is considered a contributing a risk factor for a number of diseases and ailments, including ischemic heart and pulmonary diseases, cancer and stroke.
While there has been a global reduction in HAP, it nevertheless remains a concern for many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific. The number of deaths attributed to HAP remained constant at 2.9 million from 1990 to 2013. The burden of HAP – calculated by measuring “the severity of air pollution and the extent to which people are exposed to it” – decreased by 20.2 percent in the same period, reducing the health loss from 101.6 million DALYs in 1990 to 81.1 million in 2013.
However, the number of deaths caused by AAP has increased by 700,000, according to the report, rising to 2.9 million worldwide in 2013.
Although Egypt’s PM levels have not risen dramatically since 1990, Rifaat says the bigger concern lies in the state’s desire to expand the use of coal in energy generation.
“If Egypt goes ahead with their plans for new coal plants, we will see more health impacts from air pollution,” she said. “Coal has higher PM values compared to other emission sources, such as natural gas. There are many benefits to looking at low-carbon and low emission development. We need a course correction.”