The Changing Face of Africa

Johannesburg, South Africa (GLOBE-Net) - Environment ministers from across Africa recently were presented with a new atlas that uses hundreds of satellite images and maps to show how the continent has changed over the past 35 years. Some changes are viewed as negative - glaciers melting, cities and suburbs replacing forests, wild animals disappearing into cooking pots - but others are seen as positive - forests and rare species recovering due to better management practices. Africa is most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and that is why the rest of the world - including Canada - must be willing to play a much more proactive role on environmental matters in the Dark Continent.

The Atlas, compiled on behalf of the ministers by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), underlines how development choices, population growth, climate change and, in some cases, conflicts are shaping and impacting the natural and nature-based assets of the region.

Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment features over 300 satellite images taken in every country in Africa in over 100 locations. The ’before’ and ’after’ photographs offer striking snapshots of local environmental transformation across the continent.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "As shown throughout the Atlas, there are many places across Africa where people have taken action- where there are more trees than thirty years ago, where wetlands have sprung back, and where land degradation has been countered. These are the beacons we need to follow to ensure the survival of Africa’s people and their economically important nature-based assets."

The Atlas, compiled in cooperation with researchers and organizations in Africa and elsewhere, offers a sobering assessment of thirty-six years of environmental change, including:" The swell of grey-coloured cities over a once-green countryside; protected areas shrinking as farms encroach upon their boundaries; the tracks of road networks through forests; pollutants that drift over borders of neighboring countries; the erosion of deltas; refugee settlements scattered across the continent causing further pressure on the environment; and shrinking mountain glaciers".

Between 1990 and 2004, many African countries achieved some small but promising environmental improvements, mainly in the field of water and sanitation, according to the Atlas. A few countries have expanded protected areas currently numbering over 3,000 across the continent.

Action to halt overgrazing in Tunisia’s Sidi Toui National Park has produced a rebound in the natural ecosystem. The park has hosted the reintroduction of the scimitar-horned oryx, Oryx dammah, which is on the verge of extinction.

New policies and improved enforcement have reduced unsustainable exploitation of the forests of Mount Kenya, which is a crucial area for water catchment and hydro-power generation.

Farmer initiatives focusing on the planting and protection of trees have led to land revitalization in Tahoua Province, Niger. A recent study shows there are now 10 to 20 times more trees across three of Niger’s southern provinces than there were in the 1970s.

However, loss of forest is still a major concern in 35 countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Nigeria and Rwanda, among others. This is closely followed by biodiversity loss which is occurring in 34 countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Gabon and Mali.

In the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1975, widening corridors of deforestation have accompanied expanding roads. New roads threaten to increase traffic into this biologically rich rainforest and further fuel the commercial trade in wild animals for meat, known as bushmeat.

Land degradation, similarly, is a major worry for 32 countries in Africa including Cameroon, Eritrea and Ghana. Other problems include desertification in Burkina Faso, Chad, Kenya and Niger among others as well as water stress, rising pollution and coping with rapid urbanization.

Africa is losing more than four million hectares of forest every year, twice the world’s average deforestation rate, says the Atlas. Meanwhile, some areas across the continent are said to be losing over 50 metric tonnes 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, slash and burn agriculture, coupled with the high occurrence of lightning across Africa, is thought to be responsible for wild fires.

In South Africa, at the northern edge of Cape Town, much of the native fynbos vegetation has been replaced by farms and suburban development since 1978.

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.   Refugee migrations are also causing further pressure on the environment, with major population movements due to conflict but also increasingly as a result of food and water shortages. Cooperative approaches involving several bordering countries are becoming essential for the conserving and enhancing of shared ecosystems if they are to remain productive into the 21st century.

Climate change is emerging as a driving force behind many of these problems and is likely to intensify the already dramatic transformations taking place across the continent.

Although Africa produces only four per cent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions, its inhabitants are poised to suffer disproportionately from the consequences of global climate change. Africa’s capacity to adapt to climate change is relatively low, with projected costs estimated to reach at least 5-10 per cent of GDP.

"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. These underline the urgent need for the international community to deliver a new climate agreement by the climate change convention meeting in Copenhagen in 2009; one that not only delivers deep emission reductions but also accelerates the flow of funds for adaptation and the climate proofing of economies," said Steiner.

Taking advantage of the latest space technology and Earth observation science, including the 36-year legacy of the US Landsat satellite programme, the Atlas serves to demonstrate the potential of satellite imagery data in monitoring ecosystems and natural resources dynamics. This in turn can provide the kind of hard, evidence-based data to support political decisions aimed at improving management of Africa’s natural resources.

You can return to the main Market News page, or press the Back button on your browser.