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Deputy Minister Ms Barbara Thomson’s keynote address on the occasion of the opening of the 9th Annual Air Quality Governance Lekgotla

Gateway Hotel, Umhlanga, Kwazulu Natal, 06 October 2014


The Honourable MEC of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, Mr Mike Mabuyakhulu (represented by Dr William Mngoma);
The Executive Mayor of eThekwini - Cllr James Nxumalo;
Officials from all spheres of Government;
Distinguished guests;

Ladies and gentlemen

On behalf of the Department of Environmental Affairs, I would like to thank the KwaZulu Natal Province for hosting the 9th Annual Air Quality Governance Lekgotlaand welcome you all to this prestigious event.

It is indeed a great pleasure for me to be part of this important gathering and although it is my first time, I have been brought up to speed by the officials of my Department and I have a renewed appreciation for the work being done by officials in the air quality fraternity. I am particularly pleased by your interventions in communities affected by poor air quality. We commend your interventions in these communities because they are of utmost importance to create awareness and educate our people about the impacts of poor air and benefits of good air quality.

This is a critical task because poor air quality remains one of our most challenging environmental legacy issues from our apartheid past.

In the past, environmental regulation was meant to protect narrow minority interest and environmental policies and services were formulated within a framework that perpetuated social inequality benefiting only the narrow interest of a minority of our people. It generally disregarded the impact on poor black communities. This poor state of the quality of the environment has been carried into the democratic order.

Black settlements were often near industrial areas that exposed black people to pollution. Limited access to electricity in those settlements resulted in the burning of fossil fuels further affecting air quality. Prior to 1994, the mining industry was largely shielded from environmental regulation and was not required to rehabilitate land after closure. As a result, dust blowing from mine dumps and the toxic residue of open mine stockpiles continues to affect the health of people in nearby settlements. However, we now have the regulations for the control of dust and they must be used to address these issues in order to protect our people.

The past 20 years however have seen a sustained effort by our government to mitigate the consequences of apartheid’s poor environmental planning on historically marginalised communities. We have made great strides in transforming a largely fragmented environmental governance framework to address the historical legacy of inequality and put our country on the path to sustainable development that benefits all South Africans.

The air quality fraternity has contributed to this transformation. The great work you are doing in support of government is reflected in the Annual National Air Quality Officer’s report. So, we are here to celebrate our collective successes and I trust that you will continue to work with us as we devise innovative solutions to protect our people’s health and well-being against poor air quality.

With the pleasantries out of the way, allow me to indulge you on some of the issues, which in my view would require further deliberation at this Lekgotla.

We currently have 112 government-owned air quality monitoring stations. These monitoring stations are important tools that allow us to make a proper analysis of air quality levels in our country and identify priority areas for intervention.

This data serves a broader societal purpose in that it enables us to implement effective air pollution mitigation measures, which reduce respiratory and other diseases associated with air pollution. Having less people with respiratory and other air pollution related diseases in turn reduces the pressure on our public health system.

There is therefore a need to ensure that these stations operate optimally. It appears from the 2014 State of the Air Report that there are a number of these monitoring stations which are not fully operational and therefore do not meet minimum date requirements.

We appreciate the resource requirements to keep these stations operational but it is of vital importance that they become fully operational. We are planning to take this matter up at the appropriate intergovernmental forum.

We need to ensure these stations operate optimally and report data to the South African Air Quality Information System (SAAQIS) so that the public can view the information and be well-informed regarding compliance to ambient air quality standards.

I would like to acknowledge and applaud the work of the South African Weather Service (SAWS) in hosting and managing the SAAQIS. However, I want to stress the need for the system to be upgraded as a matter of urgency to be more user friendly and meet user requirements.

We are in the process of setting up an asset management system for the air quality monitoring stations and I urge you to support our efforts in this regard and ensure that the monitoring networks from other spheres of government are subscribed to it.

The 2014 State of Air Report shows improvement in air quality at national level. However, we remain conscious of the fact that there has not been a significant reduction of pollution in the priority areas. The implication of this is that communities residing in air pollution hotspots do not yet enjoy their constitutional right to air that is not harmful to their health and well-being.

We will therefore continue to focus on these areas and look at innovative ways to bring them to compliance. In this regard we intend to install air quality index billboards in these priority areas that will be reporting the state of air live so that our communities in these areas are kept informed.

My appeal to you is to look at how you can support the implementation of the air quality index billboard intervention so as to roll it out to other areas in the country.

I have noted the progress made by the licensing authorities regarding the implementation of the licensing functions with support from the DEA. They have effectively managed to convert the old Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act registration certificates to bring them in line with the Atmospheric Emission Licenses, which represents a more rigorous approach to air quality management.

For that we thank you and we hope that all remaining transitional issues will be finalised soon based on your deliberations during this gathering. Going forward, we should ensure that the atmospheric emission licenses are used effectively to regulate all industrial sources of emissions.

However, we know too that there are other significant pollution sources in the priority areas and other parts of the country besides industries. Domestic burning of coal, wood, paraffin and other dirty fuels is also a big contributor. We must continue to run awareness campaigns in these areas to ensure that our people understand the implications of this and also contribute to the cleaning up of the air while benefitting in terms of avoiding health impacts.

In this regard, I trust that the strategy for Addressing Air Pollution in Dense Low-Income Settlements will enable us to achieve clean air in these areas because these pollution problems do not only affect human health but they also contribute to the global problem of climate change, which concerns all of us.

I would like to applaud you, the air quality governance team on the work you are doing and I believe that you will continue to protect the air and ensure healthy lives as well as the reduction of impacts both here in South Africa and at the global scale, now and in the future.

With these few words, I would like to formally open this 9th Air Quality Governance Lekgotla and wish you the best in your deliberations and interactions.

I thank you

National State of Air Report 2014

The Department released the State of the Air Report 2014, providing annual averages and comparisons for particulate matter (fine dust particles) and sulphur dioxide data between 2005 and 2013.  To access the report, please click on the link below:

>> 2014 State of Air Report and National Air Quality Indicator.