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Africa’s changing environment emerges in new UN atlas

Africa’s changing environment emerges in new UN atlas

Major changes in Africa’s environmental landscape, from disappearing glaciers in Uganda to the loss of unique vegetation in South Africa, are shown today in a new atlas published by the United Nations which uses satellite images taken over the last 35 years.

The new publication, Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment, which was compiled by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), focuses on how development choices, population growth, climate change and conflicts are impacting the region’s natural assets.

Launched today by South African President Thabo Mbeki at the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) in Johannesburg, the atlas features well-known environmental changes – such as the shrinking glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro, the drying up of Lake Chad and the falling water levels in Lake Victoria – but also brings attention to lesser known developments.

Among these are the disappearing glaciers in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, which decreased by 50 per cent between 1987 and 2003; the widening corridors of deforestation along expanding roads in the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 1975; and the disappearance of a large portion of Madagascar’s South Malagasy spiny forest between 1973 and 2003 as a result of farming and wood gathering.

But the new atlas also brings out some positive developments. For example, action on overgrazing in the Sidi Toui National Park in south-eastern Tunisia has produced a dramatic rebound in the natural ecosystem; a new management plan for the Itezhi-tezhi dam in Zambia has helped to restore the natural seasonal flooding of the Kafue flats; and the expansion of wetlands resulting from a restoration project in and around Diawling National Park is helping to control flooding and improve livelihoods in Mauritania.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said today in a statement: “As shown throughout the atlas, there are many places across Africa where people have taken action – where there are more trees than 30 years ago, where wetlands have sprung back, and where land degradation has been countered.”

However, the atlas chronicles a series of major challenges for the continent.

Loss of forest, reduction in biodiversity and land degradation are affecting the majority of African nations. According to the new publication, Africa is losing more than four million hectares of forest every year – twice the average world rate. Meanwhile, some areas are said to be losing over 50 metric tons of soil per hectare per year.

The atlas also shows that erosion and chemical and physical damage have degraded about 65 per cent of the continent’s farmlands. In addition, over 300 million people on the continent already face water scarcity, and areas experiencing water shortages in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to increase by almost a third by 2050.

“The atlas also however clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of people in the region to forces often outside their control, including the shrinking of glaciers in Uganda and Tanzania and impacts on water supplies linked with climate change,” Mr. Steiner said, and called on the international community to deliver a new climate agreement that delivers deep emissions reductions.