Busisiwe Nhlapo’s house burnt down last year, just three days before Christmas, one of 200 razed as fire swept through Joe Slovo squatter camp in Johannesburg.
The fire, thought to have been started in the early hours by arsonists, took 30 minutes to reach Nhlapo’s home, luckily giving the family time to gather their most precious possessions before fleeing.
Nhlapo and her four children are among an estimated four million shack dwellers living in South Africa, according to Bronwen Jones of Children of Fire, a non-profit organisation which fights fires in informal settlements and helps survivors.
Most fires occur in winter, when families are cold and resort to flame stoves to keep themselves warm, Jones explains. ‘Every flame stove is potentially lethal,” she says. Coal and paraffin are used for heating when people cannot afford electricity. These fuels are not only fire hazards but also contribute to air pollution. Rubbish, which is burnt several times a week, also releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere, adding to air pollution and causing health problems. Two of Nhlapo’s children are affected; one has asthma and the youngest has an undiagnosed lung condition.
Speaking at the launch of Johannesburg’s State of the Environment Report (SOER), Johannesburg Mayor Amos Masondo said: ‘We are aware that a number of people in the city suffer from lung diseases such as asthma and other lung-related illness. This is due in part to the use of coal for heating purposes, as well as traffic moving in and out of the city.
‘Part of controlling this problem is identifying areas that suffer from excessive pollution, and monitoring them. Another part is implementing immediate plans to prevent the scourge of fire wiping out more households, and keeping homes warm during winter.”
The City of Johannesburg has compiled a booklet called A Better House, to ‘offer practical advice to communities on how to improve existing rudimentary dwellings”, Masondo said.
The booklet explains how to keep houses warm in winter and cool in summer in ways that avoid using fossil fuels. ‘But,” said the mayor, ‘this is only an interim measure. Johannesburg’s goal is to provide housing for all its inhabitants.”
SOER analyses the city’s challenges and provides a first step towards finding solutions for protecting limited environmental resources. The challenges include rapid urbanisation; delivery of basic services (housing, water, public transport); crime; air and water pollution; and waste-dumping in open spaces.
‘These challenges face every city,” said Masondo. ‘With the movement of more people into Johannesburg, there is pressure on our resources. Ever-increasing migration leads to the need for more water, sanitation, health care institutions and more parks for recreation. Thus there is a need to use resources in a sustainable manner.”
SOER’s recommendations include the need to ensure that water flowing into the Vaal River, a source of drinking water, is safe. A quarterly water-quality monitoring programme has been implemented. ‘So far, we can safely say that — the quality of our water in the rivers does not suggest a crisis,” said Masondo — good news in a water-scarce country.
Johannesburg’s more than two million trees provide a vital function by absorbing noxious gases. While the city is fortunate to have a number of green spaces, Masondo said there are not enough. ‘The city will continue to develop parks and conservation areas so we can reach the international guideline of having 10% of our land under conservation.”
Several initiatives will tackle air pollution by reducing vehicle emissions. An air quality management plan will provide continuous monitoring and an integrated intervention programme. The integrated transport plan, completed last year, has identified major transport routes and ways to improve public transport. The spatial development framework will encourage the creation of a more compact city in which people live closer to their workplaces.
Air quality is monitored daily by a network of five monitoring stations, the largest of its kind in South Africa.
Johannesburg also generates more than 1,4-million tonnes of waste each year, which is deposited in five landfills. Other methods of dealing with waste, such as recycling through buy-back sites, are being investigated.
SOER provides a useful tool for determining where interventions are most urgent, but it needs to be implemented at a practical level if all Johannesburg’s citizens are to embrace it.
As Jones points out, A Better House is great in theory, but of little use if it is not distributed in the vernacular of citizens most in need of its information.