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Africa: Environmental Threats/Opportunities

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Sep 10, 2006 (060910)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Many of Africa's ecosystems are not just serving the region, but the whole world, for example, through the carbon soaking value of tropical forests. This alone probably equals or exceeds the current or exceeds the current level of international aid being provided to developing countries.

"In other words it is the developing world, and some of the poorest countries, that are helping the global community by freely removing large levels of the gases causing climate change," concludes Achim Steiner of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), in a commentary written for the recent launch of the second edition of the Africa Environmental Outlook Report. Africa's environmental resources, the report notes, face numerous threats, but sustainable management could also bring many development benefits. The report is available at .

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the commentary by Steiner, as well as a press release from UNEP on the publication of the atlas of Africa's Lakes, announced at the World Water Week international meeting in Stockholm.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today contains excerpts from the atlas of case studies on Lake Chad and Lake Victoria.

For an earlier AfricaFocus Bulletin on related issues, see

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Africa's Natural Resources Key to Powering Prosperity

By Achim Steiner

August 2006

United Nations Environmental Programme

[The Author is an Under Secretary General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.]

Africa's leaders looking to economic priorities for the Continent should be putting the environment high on the list.

For report after report is now demonstrating that the sustainable management of Africa's natural resources is one of the keys for overcoming poverty. Sensitively, creatively and sustainably harvested and fairly shared these resources can assist in meeting and going far beyond the internationally agreed development goals.

The 20th century was an industrial age the 21st century is becoming increasingly a biological one.

Africa, with its natural wealth or 'nature capital' residing in its ecosystems-from forests up to coral reefs- can be a leading player on this multi billion dollar stage.

Africa's wealth of natural resources has always been an asset and has sustained her people during good and hard times. But their true value, the sheer scale of the wealth of Africa's freshwaters and landscapes up to its minerals and marine resources, has been invisible in economic terms.

Only now are we getting glimpses, only now are the real economic figures coming to the fore.

Take the wetlands of the Zambezi River Basin. According to estimates, outlined in the new Africa Environment Outlook-2, the economic value in terms of crops and agriculture alone of these wetlands is close to $50 million a year.

The wetlands also have other economic importance. In terms of fisheries, nearly $80 million a year and in terms of maintenance of grasslands for livestock production, over $70 million annually.

Wetland-dependent eco tourism is valued at more than $800,000 annually and natural products and medicines associated with wetlands on the Zambezi, worth over $2.5 million a year.

And it is not just wetlands. Take biodiversity for example and take the gorillas of the Great Lakes Region.

The AEO-2 estimates that tourism linked with gorilla watching now brings in around $20 million a year.

It is a point echoed across the Continent. South Africa's coastal waters and unique wildlife are generating something like $30 billion a year in economic and tourist-based activities.

It can be a virtuous circle. In Madagascar, where nature-based tourism is the second largest foreign exchange earner, over 40 new protected areas covering about two per cent of its land area have recently been established.

Many of Africa's ecosystems are not just serving the region, but the whole world. You do not have take UNEP or the AEO-2's word for it.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prize-winning economist, estimates that the carbon sequestration or carbon soaking value of tropical forests- such as those in the Congo River Basin-- probably equals or exceeds the current level of international aid being provided to developing countries.

In other words it is the developing world, and some of the poorest countries, that are helping the global community by freely removing large levels of the gases causing climate change.

Some developed countries are recognizing that debt. They are turning to creative market instruments to repay it in a way that balances the need to fight poverty with a need to sustainably manage these income-generating natural resources.

Only some days ago France signed a debt-for-nature swap with Cameroon under which $25 million will be invested in people and in nature in the Congo River Basin. This is part of the wider Congo River Basin Partnership initiative, born at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, involving the basin's six countries and a range of other governmental and non-governmental actors.

Many countries in Africa, like the Gambia, are now mainstreaming environment into their Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. They are also starting to turn to market instruments to balance economic concerns with environmental ones.

Only the other week Tanzania announced, in its budget, VAT exemptions for liquefied petroleum gas in order to reduce energy production from charcoal and wood. Kenya has announced that solar panels and related equipment will be zero rated.

Countries in Africa are also becoming increasingly aware of the costs of inaction--of the price economies pay for lax environmental management and ecological degradation. A recent study in Egypt has found that pollution and environmental damage is costing that country alone over five per cent of its GDP.

AEO-2 was compiled by UNEP and researchers and scientists across Africa for the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment. But I sincerely believe it is essential reading for Africa's health, planning and transport ministers up to Africa's finance ministers and heads of state.

For while the report is on one level a state of the environment report, it is also a pre-investment document Why?. Because it underlines how little of Africa's natural wealth is actually being sustainably harvested. One figure. Africa has numerous tourist attractions, yet it contributes only four per cent annually to the multi billion dollar global tourism industry. And another. Africa's renewable freshwater resource is, at close to 4,000 cubic km per year, about 10 per cent of the global freshwater resource and closely matches Africa's share of the world population. Yet in 2005 only about five per cent of the development potential is being used for 'industry, tourism and hydropower," notes the report.

AEO-2 is also a kind of shareholders prospectus for a promising new enterprise. For it sets out choices as to how Africa's leaders, through the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), might wish to develop this natural wealth in a sustainable way.

Africa urgently needs investment in hard infrastructure from roads and railways to ports, airports, schools and hospitals. But it equally needs investment in its soft infrastructure in the ecosystem goods and services provided by nature. Investment to maintain and manage these natural resources well: Investment to unleash their huge economic and development potential for the benefit of the 800 million people in Africa today and for the generations to come.

Atlas of Africa's Lakes Launched at World Water Week in Stockholm

Forest Loss, Invasive Species, Land Degradation, Pollution and Inefficient Irrigation Taking Their Toll

UNEP News Release

Stockholm, August 2006 - The dramatic and in some cases damaging environmental changes sweeping Africa's lakes are brought into sharp focus in a new atlas.

Produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the "Africa's Lakes: Atlas of Our Changing Environment" compares and contrasts spectacular satellite images of the past few decades with contemporary ones.

It was formally launched in hard copy at World Water Week taking place in Stockholm, Sweden, between 20 and 26 August 2006.

The rapid shrinking of Lake Songor in Ghana, partly as a result of intensive salt production, and the extraordinary changes in the Zambezi River system as a result of the building of the Cahora Basa Dam sit beside more familiar images of the near 90 per cent shrinkage of Lake Chad.

Other impacts, some natural and some human-made and which can only be truly appreciated from space, include the extensive deforestation around Lake Nakuru in Kenya.

Satellite images that document the falling water levels of Lake Victoria are also mapped. Africa's largest freshwater lake is now about a metre lower than it was in the early 1990s.

Achim Steiner, UNEP's Executive Director, said: "Lakes and the natural goods and services they supply to communities, countries and regions are of huge economic significance. In the United States, for example, the value of freshwater resources for their recreational value alone is estimated at $37 billion a year".

"I hope that the images in the Atlas will sound a warning around the world that, if we are to overcome poverty and meet internationally agreed development goals by 2015, the sustainable management of Africa's lakes must be part of the equation. Otherwise we face increasing tensions and instability as rising populations compete for life's most precious of precious resources," he added.

Mr. Steiner's concerns are highlighted in a separate publication, entitled "Hydropolitical Vulnerability and Resilience along International Waters in Africa", also on show at World Water Week.

Compiled by UNEP and the University of Oregon in the United States, it assesses the strength of legal agreements between countries sharing the continent's major water systems.

The report concludes that, in order to reduce tensions between nations, much more needs to be done to beef up legal agreements and treaties and to avoid instability in the future.

It points to the Volta River basin in West Africa, shared between Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote D'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali and Togo, as being a particular source of concern.

Over the next two decades, population levels are set to double to around 40 million causing a dramatic demand for water.

Meanwhile rainfall and river flows in the region have declined steadily in the past 30 years with this partly linked to higher evaporation rates as a result of climate change.

"Current water use patterns in the Volta Basin have already stretched the available resources almost to their limits and it will be increasingly difficult to satisfy additional demands," says the report.

"With the sustainability of the Volta Basin under threat, there is urgent need for basin states to cooperate more closely to jointly manage the basin's water resources," it adds.

Some Lake Facts and Figures

The precise number of lakes, both natural and human-made (dams and reservoirs), in Africa is unknown. But the WORLDLAKE database puts the number at 677.

Globally there are an estimated 50,000 major natural and 7,500 human-made 'lakes'.

In Africa Uganda with 69 lakes, has the highest number followed by Kenya, 64; Cameroon, 59; Tanzania, 49 and Ethiopia, 46.

Gabon, with just eight lakes has the fewest in Africa, followed by Botswana, 12 and Malawi, 13.

Africa has about 30,000 cubic kilometres of water in its large lakes

The annual freshwater fish catch in Africa is around 1.4 million tonnes of which 14 per cent comes from Egypt.

However the damming of rivers across the continent allied to the disposal of untreated sewage and industrial pollution has reduced the catch particularly in the Nile Delta and Lake Chad.

Wetlands, often associated with lakes and river systems, are important for wildlife, water supplies and filtering of pollutants.

The most important include those in the Okavango Delta, the Sudd in the Upper Nile, Lake Victoria and Chad basins and the floodplains and deltas of the Congo, Niger and Zambezi Rivers.

However, many are being drained as pest control measures or for agriculture. Niger, for example, has lost more than 80 per cent of its freshwater wetlands over the past 20 or so years.

Close to 90 per cent of water in Africa is used in agriculture, of which 40 to 60 per cent is lost to seepage and evaporation, says the Atlas.

Specific Lakes

Lake Songor, a brackish coastal lagoon in Ghana, emerges as one of the most dramatic visual changes in the Atlas. The lake is home to fish and globally threatened turtles, like the Olive Ridley and green turtle, as well as important bird populations.

In December 1990, it appears as a solid blue mass of water some 74 square kilometres in size. But by December 2000, the water body is a pale shadow of its former self.

Intensive salt production and evaporation at the western end, seen as dark blue and turquoise squares, is thought to be largely to blame. Agricultural extraction of water from feeder rivers like the Sege and Zano may be also taking its toll.

Lake Victoria

The lake, with some 30 million people living around it, supports one of the densest and one of the poorest populations in the world. Around 1,200 people per square kilometre live in and around the lake. Average annual income is less than $250 per capita.

An estimated 150,000 square kilometres of land, equal to 25,000 football pitches, have been affected by soil degradation of which 13 per cent has been severely degraded.

The efforts needed to meet the needs of an additional five million people over the next two decades will be immense.

The water level of the lake rose in 1998 as a result of the El Nio rains but, over the last 10 years, it has dropped by about a metre according to measurements by the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite.

Invasive water hyacinths have caused havoc to shipping and the fishing industry. However the introduction of a pest to control the weed has had noticeable impact.

Satellite images from 1995 and 2001 show that the green swirls of hyacinth have disappeared from many of the Ugandan bays like Buka, Gobero, Wazimenya and Murchison.

Lake Djoudj

Located 60 km from St Louis in Senegal, this lake is a haven for some three million birds such as Great White Pelicans and the Arabian Bustard. It once was a series of thin lakes surrounded by streams, ponds and back waters.

Satellite images underline how the lake and its surrounding area have been changed dramatically since the building in 1986 of the Diama Dam 23 kilometres from the mouth of the Senegal River.

The sheer volume of water available has now shifted local agriculture from seasonal, flood-based farming, to year round irrigation-based agriculture.

The atlas highlights other dramatic changes linked with dams such as the formation of Lake Cahora Basa on the Zambezi River after the building of a barrage in the 1970s.

The atlas links many ecological and other changes that have occurred since the natural river flow was changed. These include the decline of flood-dependent grasslands, the drying out of mangroves and the fall in water levels on the tributary Shire River which has significantly affected navigation.

The dramatic loss of vegetation and deforestation around Lake Nakuru in Kenya is also vividly seen from space. This may be part of the reason why the lake, according to UNEP experts, declined in area from about 43 kilometres to 40 in 2000.

Satellite images of other key African lakes covered in the atlas include Lake Alaotra in Madagascar; Lake Bin El Ouidane in Morocco; Lake Ichkeul in Tunisia; Lake Kariba in Zambia/Zimbabwe; Lake Nyos in Cameroon; Lake Sibaya in South Africa; Lake St Lucia in South Africa, Lake Tana in Ethiopia and Lake Tonga in Algeria.

Notes to Editors

These publications "Africa's Lakes: Atlas of Our Changing Environment" and "Hydropolitical Vulnerability and Resilience along International Waters Africa" have been prepared under the auspices of the African Ministerial Council on Water (AMCOW), who's Chairperson and President, Mrs. Maria Mutagamba, Minister of State for Water Resources, Uganda, has gladly provided the Foreword.

High resolution images of all of the 'before and after' satellite images can be found at Or go to Copies of this publication are available on order from - UNEP's online bookstore at:

For More Information Please Contact Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, Office of the Executive Director, on Tel: 254 20 7623084, Mobile: 254 (0)733 632755 or 41 79 596 5737, e-mail:

Or contact Elisabeth Waechter, UNEP Associate Media Officer, on Tel: 254 20 7623088, Mobile: 254 720 173968, e-mail:

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, witha particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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