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Africa: Environmental Atlas

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Jun 17, 2008 (080617)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The new Atlas of Africa from the UN Environment Programme features 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. It also contains brief profiles of every African country, their important environmental issues, and a description of how each is faring in terms of environmental sustainability. "Before and after" satellite images from every country highlight specific places where change is particularly evident.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from the "Reader's Overview" section of the atlas. The full atlas, individual chapters, and related texts and images, can be downloaded at:

Two photoessays based on the Atlas are available at
The Bad News: Environmental Change Threatens Africa


The Good News: Africa's Environment Can Be Rescued

For reports on the latest meeting of the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN), held in Johannesburg earlier this month, see

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Africa: Atlas of our Changing Environment

As the age-old adages say, "A picture is worth a thousand words" and "Seeing is believing", this stunning 400-page "Africa: Atlas of our Changing Environment" is a unique and powerful publication which brings to light stories of environmental change at more than 100 locations spread across every country in Africa. There are 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 the continent's environment over the past several decades.

The observations and measurements of environmental change illustrated in this Atlas help gauge the extent of progress made by African countries towards reaching the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals. More importantly, this book contributes to the knowledge and understanding that are essential for adaptation and remediation. This UNEP publication should be of immense value to all those who want to know more about Africa and who care about the future of this continent.

Reader's overview:

[Excerpts only. Full text of this and other chapters available at]

"I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs' eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents. Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder." - Excerpt from Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech By Wangari Maathai 10 December 2004

Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment is the first publication to use satellite photos to depict environmental change in each and every African country during the last thirty years. Through a rich array of satellite images, graphs, maps, and photographs, this Atlas presents a powerful testament to the adverse changes taking place on the African landscape as a result of intensified natural and human impacts. The remarkable developments in earth observation technology and its application during the last three decades have provided important tools for environmental monitoring. Earth-observing sensor systems on aircraft and spacecraft provide data streams for analysing environmental issues at varying spatial and temporal scales. The power of earth observations technologies to produce thousands of current and historical satellite images has illuminated the stories of environmental change, and has made this publication possible.

Africa: An Introduction to the Continent

There are 53 countries and one "non-self governing territory" (Western Sahara) in Africa. Ecologically, Africa is home to eight major biomes-large and distinct biotic communities with characteristic assemblages of flora and fauna. Chapter One of the Atlas vividly illustrates Africa's geographical attributes, presenting a physical setting in which readers may visualize the changes human actions are etching on the landscape. Maps, images and informative text reveal that Africa is endowed with rich natural resources that provide the basis for its peoples' livelihoods. Among the varied environmental features readers can see are rain forests, wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs, and coastal deltas. These ecosystems provide a rich and diverse array of potential sources of food and materials. In addition, Africa holds approximately 30 per cent of the earth's minerals including 40 per cent of the gold, 60 per cent of the cobalt and 90 per cent of its platinum. In recent years, oil production has been the main contributor towards Africa's economic growth. There are also grazing and agricultural lands that can support farming economies, as evidenced by the 56.6 per cent of Africa's labour force engaged in agriculture.

On the other hand, in many areas the environments from which most people in Africa must eke a living are harsh and the climate challenging. Africa is the world's hottest continent with deserts and drylands covering some 60 per cent of the entire land surface. Only ten per cent of farm soils are prime agricultural land, and more than one-quarter per cent of the land has moderate to low potential for sustainable agriculture. Rainfall variability is high, ranging from near 0 mm/year in parts of the Sahara to 9 500 mm/year near Mount Cameroon. Droughts and famine are ever present, and tens of millions of Africans have suffered the consequences every season. Droughts not only directly cause food insecurity, triggering migration in some cases, but also negatively impact economic performance.


Africa's water resources are continuously affected by persistent droughts and changes in land use. At the same time, a growing population is increasing the demand on already limited water supplies, particularly in areas which suffer from water shortages. Currently, it is estimated that over 300 million people in Africa face water scarcity conditions. About 75 per cent of the African population relies on groundwater as the major source of drinking water, particularly in northern and southern Africa. However, groundwater represents only about 15 per cent of the continent's total renewable water resources.


Land in Africa is becoming increasingly degraded. Erosion and/or chemical and physical damage has degraded about 65 per cent of agricultural lands. This has forced farmers in many places to either cultivate marginal and unproductive soils, further degrading the land, or to migrate to cities and slums. Some areas in Africa are said to be losing over 50 metric tonnes of soil per hectare per year. Thirty-one per cent of the region's pasture lands and 19 per cent of its forests and woodlands are also classified as degraded. Forests account for over 20 per cent of Africa's 30 million km2 of land area, but are being destroyed and degraded by logging and conversion to plantations, agriculture, roads, and settlements. As a region, Africa is losing more than four million hectares of forest every year-twice the world's average deforestation rate.


Africa's rich biological diversity-one of the region's most stunning attributes-is in jeopardy due to a confluence of habitat destruction, poaching, and increasing populations. Africa contains over 3 000 protected areas including 198 Marine Protected Areas, 50 Biosphere Reserves, and 80 Wetlands of International Importance. Eight of the world's 34 international biodiversity hotspots are in Africa. Despite their recognized status, these areas remain under threat by civil unrest and encroachment, as well as the introduction of alien species. Resolution of such predicaments has been undermined by administrative problems including lack of funding and inadequate staffing or training.

Changing Conditions

The Atlas paints a vivid picture of the rapid, and in some cases dramatic, transformations taking place on the lands and waters that sustain Africa's people. These include land degradation and desertification, water stress, declining biodiversity, deforestation, increasing dust storms, rising pollution and rapid urbanisation.

Moreover, climate change is likely to intensify these conditions and alter the environment even further. Although Africa emits only four per cent of total global carbon dioxide emissions, its inhabitants are projected to suffer disproportionately from the consequences of global climate change. Given its economic constraints, Africa's capacity to adapt to climate change is relatively low rendering the region exceptionally vulnerable to potential impacts. In many areas, even small changes in precipitation and water availability could have a devastating effect on agricultural output and therefore on food security. As climate change intensifies and its impacts deepen, adaptation will become increasingly difficult. Correspondingly, achieving targets set by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will become more challenging.

Transboundary Environmental Issues

Chapter Two of the Atlas presents examples of transboundary environmental issues related to shared lands and waters, migrating animals and people, and pollutants that drift over borders of neighbouring countries. It highlights both emerging challenges and success stories in addressing these issues. Africa has a number of large transboundary ecosystems-areas of land or sea that straddle one or more political boundaries. Some of these are officially protected areas which are extremely important for safeguarding Africa's remarkable animal populations and their habitats, truly one of the wonders of the world. The importance of transboundary protected areas is especially obvious for migratory species, for example the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park which connects South Africa's Kruger National Park, Mozambique's Limpopo National Park and Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou National Park; and the Ai-Ais/ Richtersveld Transfrontier Park along the cost of South Africa and Namibia. Africa also has 59 international transboundary river basins, which cover about 64 per cent of the region's land area, contain 93 per cent of its total surface water, and are home to 77 per cent of the population. Multinational approaches are essential to conserving these shared areas, underscoring the need for cooperative management strategies among bordering countries.

Another transboundary issue of particular significance is the movement of air pollutants. Africa experiences the most extensive biomass burning in the world. Gaseous molecules emitted as a by-product of biomass burning can travel across national boundaries far from their original source. Fires contribute as much as 35 per cent to ground level ozone formation in Africa, bringing negative health consequences such as respiratory illnesses. The deserts contribute to dust storms that can drift over large areas.

Finally, political and economic difficulties give rise to refugee migrations, causing further pressure on the environment. Impacts resulting from masses of moving people affected by wars, conflicts, food and water shortages, and economic strife in one country may all extend into neighbouring countries. The Atlas displays a map of major refugee settlements scattered across the region, and images of their effects upon an already-stressed environment.

Tracking Progress Towards Environmental Sustainability

Chapter Three is the star attraction of this Atlas. It contains brief profiles of every African country, their important environmental issues, and a description of how each is faring in terms of progress towards the targets under the UN's Millennium Development Goal 7: ensure environmental sustainability. "Before and after" satellite images from every country highlight specific places where change is particularly evident.

This chapter also provides measures of progress towards the Millennium Development Goals' (MDG) environmental targets. The Atlas depicts whether or not each country has increased the percentage of its land area covered by forest, increased the land area covered by designated protected areas, decreased carbon emissions, improved access to clean water and sanitation, and reduced the slum population as a percent of urban population.

Between 1990 and 2004, a large number of countries witnessed real improvements in their efforts towards achieving the MDG targets that measure environmental progress. In many other cases, the improvements have been incremental, but promising (Figure 1). Most countries focused on improving those elements of the environment with direct relevance to human health (e.g.sanitation and water). Over 30 countries improved access to safe water and sanitation, and 23 countries reduced the percentage of people living in slums. A few countries have expanded protected areas. The most evident failure in progress towards the MDGs is in the loss of forest cover.

A comprehensive review was conducted using public information and peer-reviewed reports to identify the salient environmental issues each country faces, producing a unique environmental portrait of every African nation ...

Africa Then and Now: Images of a Changing Environment

The display of satellite images in Chapter Three provides scientific evidence of some of the scars that human activity and natural processes have left on the African landscape. These include but are not limited to: gouges made by mining operations; pock marks from bore holes; bald patches where forests once stood; and lakes that have completely disappeared. There are also images that reveal more diffuse, but nonetheless troublesome, change such as the swell of grey-coloured cities over a once-green countryside; threats to biodiversity by conversion of nature habitats; the tracks of road networks through forests; the erosion of deltas; and shrinking mountain glaciers.

Despite the numerous challenges, people across Africa are taking significant steps towards protecting and improving their environment. A number of images show the positive results of some of the many efforts undertaken to not only stem environmental destruction, but to reverse it. Success stories include land revitalisation evident by the growth of tree clusters in certain images of Niger, and in one instance, the expansion of wetlands resulting from a restoration project to control flooding in Mauritania.

In addition to well-publicised changes, such as Mount Kilimanjaro's melting glaciers, the shrinking of Lake Chad, and falling water levels in Lake Victoria, photographic evidence of a large number of new environmental hotspots is presented here for the first time. The following ten sites are examples selected from 104 such sites in this Atlas: [for all ten see version on-line at]

  • The widening of corridors of deforestation surrounding local roads in the northern area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1975 is depicted with two striking images. New roads for commercial logging and a proposed road improvement project threaten to bring even greater traffic to this biologically diverse rain forest.
  • In the past half-century or so, the population of Senegal has soared, with much of the growth occurring in its urban areas. The dramatic expansion in the capital, Dakar, between 1942 and 2007 is shown via aerial photography from the 1940's and a recent high-resolution satellite image. Originally occupying a small centre of urban development at the tip of the Cap Vert Peninsula, the Dakar metropolitan area has grown to a population of nearly 2.5 million people spread over the entire area.
  • A new management plan for the Itezhitezhi Dam in Zambia has helped to restore the natural seasonal flooding of the Kafue Flats. A satellite image from early 2007 captures the height of the first flood season where water was released from the dam to assist natural flooding.
  • The remarkable appearance of a chain of lakes in the deserts of Egypt is captured in a series of satellite images beginning in the late 1980s. A massive volume of water was released through Lake Nasser's spillway to prevent flooding damage along the Nile Valley. The New Valley Project will continue sending Nile water into the desert to support an enormous irrigation scheme.

Looking Forward

Those who read this Atlas and reflect upon its images will have gained a deeper understanding of the impacts upon Africa's land, plants, animals, air and waters. The pace and scale of change are hard to ignore. The Atlas also contains a few signs of hope in our ability to protect against, and even reverse environmental degradation. As shown throughout, there are inspiring photos of places 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 stymied. These are beacons we need to follow to ensure the survival of our environment and of the world's peoples.

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

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