Air, water and waste pollution are major environmental problems in Rwanda .
Outdoor annual PM2.5 levels in Rwandan cities can reach four times the value of WHO guidelines. In addition, much of the Rwandan population is regularly exposed to dangerous levels of indoor air pollution. Indoor air pollutants in Rwanda, particularly PM2.5, are estimated to be between 50 and 200 μg/m3 in homes using charcoal and wood, and between 40 and 80 μg/m3 for homes that use propane gas for cooking and kerosene for lighting .
Exposure to air pollutants is strongly correlated with increased mortality and morbidity caused by cardiovascular and respiratory diseases . According to the 2020 report of the Rwandan Ministry of Health, these noncommunicable diseases were the second cause of death in Rwanda, while respiratory diseases were the main cause of morbidity in Rwanda in 2019 .
In addition, only 30% of Rwandan water bodies have good ambient water quality. The use of contaminated water leads to diarrheal disease, intestinal parasites, and environmental enteropathy, and has complex and reciprocal links with malnutrition . In Rwanda, the total number of deaths in 2016 from diarrhea due to lack of water was 1,232, while the total number of deaths from lack of water, sanitation and hygiene was 2,306 .
The generation of waste and its hazardous disposal also leads to additional negative impacts on human health in Rwanda, and the waste sector emits 12% of the country’s total emissions, according to the latest Rwanda GHG inventory data (which covers emissions up to the year 2015) .
The main sources of anthropogenic air pollution are road traffic, mines and quarries, the combustion of domestic fuels and industrial production. The use of wood and charcoal for cooking is a significant source of indoor air pollution and contributes to high background concentrations of PM10 and PM2.5 .
Agricultural and mining activities, as well as poor land and wastewater management pollute the country's water bodies. The main underlying cause of water pollution is sedimentation and siltation due to soil erosion and microbiological contamination linked to poor sanitation systems and practices .
Waste pollution is linked to high rates of urbanization and economic growth in Rwanda, and the amount of waste produced is increasing . Urban areas of Rwanda are expected to have the greatest waste generation. For example, urban waste in the City of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, will increase by 63% over the next ten years, from around 600 to 800 tonnes produced per day in 2019 to 1,300 tonnes per day by 2030 .
Key policies and governance approach
GoR's ongoing efforts to combat pollution include the adoption of laws and regulations. Rwanda has established a legal and regulatory framework for waste and water management, and has committed to several MEAs related to pollution.
The 2016 Air Quality Law sets out the framework for regulating and preventing air pollution in Rwanda, and mandates REMA to regulate air quality. In April 2021, a transport policy was ratified and the Cabinet approved an electric mobility strategy which contains tax incentives for electric mobility inputs, lower electricity tariffs and other incentives.
In waste management, the country has made great strides through several well-known waste-related interventions including, but not limited to, its renowned policy on banning plastic bags and National Cleanup Day.
Successes and Remaining Challenges
Despite government efforts in air pollution prevention through the establishment of laws and policies, increased industrial activity and urban growth in Rwanda continues to result in high levels of outdoor air pollution . Urbanization levels that are not matched with the development of infrastructure, such as paved roads, result in the country failing to reduce outdoor pollution in towns and cities .
In addition, high dependency on fossil fuels for cooking, heating, and lighting across the country also exacerbate high incidences of indoor air pollution and cases of acute respiratory illnesses. As the country invests in off-grid solar energy, available solutions are only good for lighting while fossil fuels remain a much-needed energy source for cooking and heating . As a result, indoor air pollution in Rwanda is slightly abated .
Efforts in the waste management sector are underpinned by Rwanda’s Plastic Ban in 2008. One of the main reasons for this ban was to reduce plastic waste and promote a cleaner country, due to mismanagement, disposal and impacts of plastics. However, the Plastic Ban is not without its drawbacks. Rwanda's ban on single-use plastic food packaging creates challenges for importers, manufacturers, traders and consumers. At the regional level, some of Rwanda's neighbors are either lax in enforcing the Plastic Ban, or do not see the need for it. Therefore, the smuggling of plastic across the Rwandan border remains a problem despite border controls.
Initiatives and Development Plans
REMA has set up an air quality monitoring instrument system that provides data on air quality across the country. The data is accessible on the “Rwanda AQI” application, allowing users to compare ground observation data with satellite data. Other government responses on pollution have included initiatives in the energy and transportation sectors. In the transport sector, the Government has recently focused on green cities, sustainable services and electric mobility. In 2018, the first electric motorcycles and cars were introduced to the Rwandan market through electric mobility initiatives.
Following the installation of smart bins in Kigali in 2020 , the Ministry of Environment, City of Kigali, Ministry of Infrastructure and the Global Green Growth Institute have launched the “Waste to Resources” project in the City of Kigali. The project aims to valorize organic and plastic waste; increase collection of electronic waste; and increase community awareness, build capacity, and improve the policy and regulatory environment for circular economy initiatives in the waste sector. The project will be implemented over three years and aims to mobilize 20M EUR in green investments to modernize and integrate sustainable waste management practices in Rwanda .
Goals and Ambitions
The GoR is committed to preserving air and water quality, combating pollution and taking important initiatives to identify sources of pollution. In addition, water quality and improved sanitation are essential elements in the promotion of public health and the Rwandan Government is committed to ensuring universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2024.
Despite government efforts to adopt and implement policies and measures to reduce pollution levels, the majority of the population continues to be at risk. Therefore, strengthened interventions in current policies and government actions are needed to address pollution problems. The main recommended actions are:
- Support Rwandan systems for monitoring pollution and changes in natural resources linked to changes in air and water quality.
- Enforce and regulate industrial and vehicle emission controls: The most effective and efficient approach to protect public health from the adverse effects of outdoor air pollution is to reduce ambient concentrations through emission controls (Rwanda Environmental Management Authority, Inventory of Sources of Air Pollution in Rwanda Report, 2018).
- Development of a comprehensive system for obtaining up-to-date and reliable waste data, as the lack of solid data is an obstacle to the development and implementation of efficient and cost-effective waste management practices.
- Development of a national integrated and sustainable waste management strategy that can guide waste management practices, and integrate waste minimization complementary to other technologies for unlocking opportunities in the waste sector.
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 REMA, "Inventory of Sources of Air Pollution in Rwanda.," Rwanda Environment Management Authority. 2018.