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Why we must #StopTheSoot fast and a note on inflation

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You may not have heard, but there is an ongoing environmental disaster in Port-Harcourt. I’m not talking about the typical oil-bunkering related spills but something that is a lot more serious. For at least a year, the air in Port Harcourt has been filled with soot. Soot is a general term for fine particles that are so small that your body cannot filter them, and they go straight into your lungs. They are particles smaller than hair or dust.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, these “microscopic particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and have been linked to a wide range of serious health effects, including premature death, heart attacks, and strokes, as well as acute bronchitis and aggravated asthma among children”. They have also been linked to cancer and reproductive health issues.

The issues from soot pollution are so severe than many cities facing that problem sometimes take drastic action to try to curb it. In 2013, authorities in Beijing, China for instance, shut down over 100 factories and ordered one in every three vehicles off the streets. In Delhi in 2017, half the cars were forced off the streets, construction and industrial activity in the city were banned, and almost all trucks were barred from the city.

This type of pollution is a typical example of a negative externality, that is a scenario where one person’s actions lead to consequences for others who are not particularly involved in the action. If a factory pollutes the environment around it, the consequences aren’t faced by that factory alone, but by everyone in that area. Which of course means that the factory will probably never voluntarily choose to stop polluting but must be made to do so by the people in that area, represented by their government.

Who or what is polluting Port Harcourt? Some lay the blame on the feet of illegal refineries while others say it is the actual destruction of the refineries that is the problem. Some lay the blame at the feet of the “legal” Port Harcourt refinery, while others point fingers elsewhere. Last year, an asphalt plant was fingered as the cause of the soot pollution and was shut down. Unfortunately, the soot remains. As with most instances of air pollution, it is unlikely that there is one culprit that can be shut down making everything okay again. A more wholistic approach to dealing with the problem is required.

Port Harcourt is a city of almost two million people and to have that many people exposed to such hazardous conditions for such a long time should have alarm bells ringing everywhere. Given that the Niger Delta in general is already one of the most polluted regions in the country, the alarm bells should be louder. It is time for the government and the people to act, because this is not a problem that will disappear on it own.

On inflation
The inflation numbers for March were released last week with it dropping to 13.3 per cent. Cue the hurrays and applauds. It is a good thing that inflation is coming down but given that human beings tend to only remember the last thing that happens, it might be useful to get a bit of a refresher. Back in 2014 one of the primary reasons given for not wanting a currency adjustment was that “it would cause inflation”. Of course, we dragged our feet for two years and still got the higher inflation and a currency adjustment, but with a recession tacked on to it.

Those who understand how inflation works and is measured know that one-time adjustments of anything can’t really influence inflation in perpetuity. The adjustment happens and then people move on. And because the headline measure of inflation compares prices today to prices a year ago, the inflation measures would be high until at least a year after the adjustment plus a few. The morale of the story is this: trying to stop inflation is not a valid reason to prevent a currency adjustment. The better response is to adjust and let it pass through the system quickly and not drag your economy through the mud in the interim. Of course, the best response it to not end up in a scenario where you need an adjustment but that is a story for another day.
Nonso Obikili is an economist currently roaming somewhere between Nigeria and South Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the views of his employers.


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