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Part 3: Law and order in urban life Need for legal action against noise

So, reliance is made on general day to day observations.  Local Government legislation gives authorities powers to control nuisances but does not mention noise specifically. Legal provisions for regulating noise are to be found in the Environmental Management Act 2004 of Tanzania, which defines noise as “any pollution caused by sound that is intrinsically objectionable or that may cause adverse effect in human health, life or the environment and includes sound that may be prescribed by the National Environmental Standards Committee.” 

If the criteria is noise that is objectionable, a question arises as who objects, to whom? Supposing people are indifferent or or are not objecting? This brings in the question of culture. There are cultures that tolerate a lot of noise, while others are very sensitive to any noise however small.

Many who generate noise in our environment are happy to do so and indeed see it as being a necessary action to promote their economic and social activities or to convince their captive audience, one way or the other. An entrepreneur managing a public house feels that loud music is necessary for business otherwise the place will feel “dead.”

If the noise is too high and some patrons object, the volume will be temporarily tuned down; but will be put up a short while later or when the objecting patron leaves. Neighbours may be annoyed, especially when, besides the usual noise, a visiting performer is invited. Indeed they may lodge claims, but these are usually not entertained by the relevant authorities.

Unfortunately, there are one too many open air trading areas that generate noise that is not insulated and somehow society is required to tolerate this.  The driver or conductor of a public bus feels that passengers need entertainment in the form of loud music and there is no way of protesting if you feel offended.

Unfortunately ears cannot be naturally shut off to keep noise outside. Current technological developments have resulted into powerful amplifiers and loudspeakers which can really generate very loud noise. It may well be that we need regulation of noise in public transport vehicles so that passengers are not subjected to loud and many times unwanted noise  In  cities of the developed countries concern about noise is not so much about directly human generated noise but of noise made by machines (e.g. from industries), motor vehicles, aircraft, trains.

In cities of the developing world there is much noise that is directly generated by human beings, e.g. through social gatherings and trade, in a situation of minimal control of noise emission. While, in MDCs there is a whole array of regulations that address noise, such a situation does not exist in our urban areas or if it does, it is still in its infancy and is hardly enforced. 

Concern about noise could depend on a number of circumstances. Where is the noise made? In the More Developed Countries (MDCs), residential neighbourhoods are expected to be quiet. In African cities you find considerable noise even in residential neighbourhoods although this is beginning to raise some eyebrows. Noise, however, is expected of the market place although we possibly over do it. Considerable noise is expected in a football stadium.

However, one would expect little or no noise in areas where concentration is important such as education and hospital establishments.  How loud is the noise? Society might tolerate low level noise but when it becomes too loud, there is concern. The loudness may be associated with the duration of the noise. We do have many advertising crews plying our streets advertising this or that product or this or that service (like an expected entertainment? While these can be very loud, one gets consolation that they last only a few minutes before the advertisers shift location.

However, if such noise lasts for long, the captive audience can get badly inconvenienced.  The timing of the noise is also important. Noise made into the wee of the night is very annoying, but it is common to have, in our urban neighbourhoods, loud music filling in the air well past midnight. Some level of noise is expected during the day and it is hoped that as night falls quiet will reign in so that people can rest or concentrate on something. When this is not the case, residents suffer and may need to be protected.  Who makes the noise may matter.

As we have seen almost anybody can make any noise in our urban areas with little let or hindrance. It is however reasonable to be less concerned with noise that is made in the process of saving life, e.g. in the case of fire. Few will complain at the noise made by the ambulance or fire engine or the police when discharging their duties. Besides, this is usually for a short period. Outside such essential undertakings, not every body should have the freedom of making noise at any time and at any location.  The content of the noise is another matter of concern.

While it is impossible to get all people to agree on ideas, some of the noise made has content that is annoying and sometimes offending the public. This public however is captive. You cannot move your house simply because there is noise in the neighbourhood.  It is in realisation that noise has negative externalities that the call for regulating noise is in order, both in terms of production, and content.  Nevertheless it is important to realise that there may not be easy consensus within society as to how much noise control there should be.

The National Environmental Standards Committee has powers to: (a) prescribe procedures for the measurement and determination of noise and vibration standards; (b) set minimum standards for emission of noise and vibration pollution into the environment; (c) establish criteria and procedures for the measurement of noise and vibration pollution into the environment; (d) prescribe guidelines for the abatement of unreasonable noise and vibration pollution emitted into the environment; (e) establish noise levels and noise emission standards applicable to construction sites, plants, machinery, motor vehicles, aircraft, including sonic booms, industrial and commercial activities; (f) establish appropriate measures to ensure the abatement and control of noise from sources referred to above in (e)  and (g) measure the levels of noise emanating from sources referred to above in (e).  The Environmental Law seems to be concerned when noise becomes an environmental pollutant and less when it is a nuisance. There is considerable violation of individuals’ right to freedom from noise and freedom of choice over what to hear and not to hear when and where.

Noise is brought to you wherever you are especially in the name of trade with little that individuals can do to excruciate themselves.  Time has come for the community to discuss the question of noise. If the example from Kenya is to go by, agreement may not be easy to be arrived at as to what noise should be controlled and how. Deliberations on this issue would be a starting point so that at the end we have a society where people can quietly enjoy their living.


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Author: Lusuga Kironde

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