Glaciers, lakes and forests have disappeared from Africa at an alarming rate in the past 36 years, satellite photographs have revealed.
The changing face of the continent was brought home to African ministers yesterday when they were presented with an atlas charting the speed of environmental destruction.
The loss of ice on Mount Kilimanjaro and the vanishing waters of Lake Chad were among the best-known problems, but deforestation, urbanisation and the spread of agriculture have also taken their toll.
Other great changes included tree loss and land degradation caused by refugees in the Sudan, the virtual disappearance of Lake Ngami in Botswana, the expansion of the city of Bujumbura in Burundi,and the loss of Cameroon's rainforest to rubber and palm plantations.
Hundreds of “before and after” satellite images offered a sobering assessment of the damage caused to the natural environment in less than four decades. The images formed part of Africa - Atlas of Our Changing Environment, launched yesterday after a two-year project by Unep, the United Nations Environment Programme.
Examples where the landscape has been restored or improved included the re-establishment of trees in Niger and the creation of mangroves on the Eritrean coast, but the majority of images highlighted cases of environmental damage.
Marion Cheatle, deputy director of Unep's early warning division, said that the atlas - presented in Johannesburg at the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment - was intended to show where and why action needed to be taken. “What we are really trying to do is to make people aware of the extent and rate and the enormity of changes taking place,” she said. “We are trying to make policy and decision-makers realise they can take decisions that will stanch this degradation.”
The biggest factor contributing to the changes, she said, was the rise in Africa's population to 965 million.
From 2000-05 the population rose 2.32 per cent each year compared with the global average of 1.24 per cent, and 20 of the fastest growing countries around the world in terms of population are located in Africa. This has meant the area of land available for each individual has fallen from 13.5 hectares in 1950 to 3 today and is forecast to fall to just 1.5 hectares by 2050.
Ms Cheatle said: “Where we've got problems at the moment, they are likely to get worse with climate change.”
Deforestation was a key concern in 35 African nations, most notably the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi and Rwanda. About four million hectares (15,500 sq miles) of forest is lost in Africa a year. Biodiversity loss was highlighted in 34 countries and land degradation from erosion - up to 50 tonnes of soil are lost per hectare - was a “major worry” for Ghana, Cameroon and 30 other nations. In the Rwenzori mountains, Uganda, glaciers shrank by half between 1987 and 2003. Monika MacDevett, of Unep's world conservation monitoring centre, said: “If we carry on business as usual, we'll destroy our planet.”
Achim Steiner, a senior UN official, said there were many examples of how action has been taken to restore the environment and he said those projects should act as beacons. But he said the outlook for many areas and the people who live there remain poor unless remedial work is undertaken.