Africa: Environment Ministers Launch 'Environment Atlas'

African ministers of environment recently launched the Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment, which shows a rapidly changing landscape, prominent of which is the disappearance of glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and the Ruwenzori Mountains on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda.

The atlas was presented to the outgoing president of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN), Andre Okombi Salissa by the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Achim Steiner at the 12th session of AMCEN conference held in Sandton, South Africa.

The 390-page atlas, launched on 10 June 2008, brings to light stories of environmental change in more than 100 locations spread across every country in Africa.

The atlas has more than 300 satellite images, 300 ground photographs, and 150 maps, along with informative graphs and charts that give a vivid visual portrayal of Africa and its changing environment.

Using current and historical satellite images, the atlas provides scientific evidence of the impact that natural and human activities have had on Africa's environment over the past decades.

"The intent of the book is to bring compelling visual and scientific evidence of environmental change derived from the Earth Observation Sciences to a broader audience and to build the awareness of our rapidly changing environment," said Steiner in a videotape marking the launch of the atlas.

The Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment was compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in collaboration with several partners and experts.

It offers 36 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 drifting over borders of neighbouring countries, the erosion of deltas, and shrinking mountain glaciers."

The Africa-wide atlas features a number of changes in southern Africa. The changes include the widening corridors of deforestation in the DRC following timber harvesting and the opening of new roads and the expansion of old ones.

A large portion of Madagascar's South Malagasy spiny forest is shown as having disappeared between 1973 and 2003 as a result of farming and firewood gathering.

The northern edge of Cape Town has seen much of the native fynbos vegetation replaced with farms and suburban development since 1978.

Fynbos make up 80 percent of the plant varieties in the Cape Floristic Region, an area with over 6,000 plant species found nowhere else in the world, and are an economic asset for tourism.

The satellite images also highlight positive signs that natural resource management is protecting against, and even reversing, environmental degradation. For example, a new management plan for the Itezhi-tezhi dam in Zambia has helped restore the natural seasonal flooding of the Kafue flats. This has seen the preservation of the habitat for the lechwe, an antelope species common to the region.

According to the atlas, deforestation is a major concern in 35 countries, including DRC and Malawi.

Africa is losing four million hectares of forests per year, and this is twice the world's average deforestation rate.

Biodiversity loss is rampant in 34 countries, while land degradation is a major concern in 32 countries, including Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe. sardc.net

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