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“Africa’s Lakes: Atlas of our Changing Environment” released by UNEP, satellite images starkly reflect environmental degradation of Africa

Stockholm, 24 August 2006: The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) believes that the growing environmental degradation of Africa is perhaps most starkly reflected in satellite images beamed from the skies. So, the Nairobi-based U.N. agency introduced a new atlas at an international water conference here which shows “the dramatic and damaging” environmental changes sweeping across the African continent.

The atlas titled “Africa’s Lakes: Atlas of our Changing Environment”, includes satellite images, released during “World Water Week” concluding Saturday, presents contrasting satellite images of a seemingly unblemished Africa of the past few decades against a contemporary continent under environmental assault.

According to the U.N. agency, Lake Songor emerges “as one of the most dramatic visual changes in the atlas.” Described as a brackish coastal lagoon in Ghana, the lake is home to fish and globally threatened turtles, as well as a vast bird population. In December 1990, the lake appears as a solid blue mass of water some 74 square kilometres in size. But by December 2000, the water body has been reduced to “a pale shadow of its former self.”

The statistics continue at an alarming rate: Niger has lost more than 80 percent of its freshwater wetlands over the past two decades. And close to 90 percent of water in Africa is used in agriculture, of which 40 to 60 percent is lost to seepage and evaporation, according to UNEP. Additionally, satellites images from 1995 and 2001 indicate that the green swirls of hyacinth have disappeared from many of the bays in Uganda.

Meanwhile, a new study titled “Hydropolitical Vulnerability and Resilience along International Waters in Africa”, says rainfall and river flows in Africa have declined steadily over the past 30 years. This is partly due to higher evaporation rates caused by climate change.

“Current water use patterns in the Volta River Basin (in West Africa) have already stretched the available resources almost to their limits, and it will be increasingly difficult to satisfy additional demands,” says the report prepared jointly by UNEP and the University of Oregon in the United States.

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. The basin is shared by six countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali and Togo. The report says that much more needs to be done to beef up legal agreements and treaties among African nations in order to reduce tensions and avoid instability in the future.

A separate study on “Transboundary Water Management” by the Bonn International Centre for Conversion says that several international river basins in southern Africa are also approaching the point of closure, “meaning that no more water is left to be allocated to human use, that all the water of the system is already utilised.” The four most developed nations in the region — Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — “are also facing the greatest scarcity of water.”