New Atlas Captures Changing Face of Africa's Environment

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, June 10, 2008 (ENS) – Environment ministers from across Africa gathered in Johannesburg today were presented with a new atlas that uses hundreds of satellite images and maps to show how the continent has changed over the past 35 years. Some changes are viewed as negative – glaciers melting, cities and suburbs replacing forests, wild animals disappearing into cooking pots – but others are seen as positive – forests and rare species recovering due to better management practices.

Launched by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is hosting the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, the atlas features over 300 satellite images taken in every country in Africa in over 100 locations. It was compiled by the UN Environment Programme, UNEP, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

In this pair of satellite images, the
contrast between the relatively lush
vegetation of January 2005 and the
parched landscape of January 2006
reveals the intensity and extent of
drought in Kenya and Tanzania.
(Images courtesy NASA)

“Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment” illuminates how development choices, population growth, climate change and conflicts are shaping and impacting Africa’s natural resources. The “before” and “after” photographs offer images of local environmental transformation across the continent – postive and negative.

UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, “As shown throughout the atlas, there are many places across Africa 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 countered.”

“These are the beacons we need to follow to ensure the survival of Africa’s people and their economically important nature-based assets,” Steiner said.

Yet, there are critical environmental problems, and the atlas describes them. “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 that drift over borders of neighbouring countries; the erosion of deltas; refugee settlements scattered across the continent causing further pressure on the environment; and shrinking mountain glaciers.”

The remains of a palm forest outside
a refugee camp in Guinea (Photo
courtesy UNEP)

In addition to well-publicized climate changes, such as Mount Kilimanjaro’s shrinking glaciers, the drying up of Lake Chad, and falling water levels in Lake Victoria, the Atlas presents, for the first time, satellite images of lesser known but crucial environmental changes.

They show that glaciers in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains have shrunk by half between 1987 and 2003.

In the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1975, widening corridors of deforestation have accompanied expanding roads. New roads threaten to increase traffic into this biologically rich rainforest and further fuel the commercial trade in wild animals for meat, known as bushmeat.

In South Africa, at the northern edge of Cape Town, much of the native fynbos vegetation has been replaced by farms and suburban development since 1978.

Fynbos make up 80 percent of the plant varieties in the Cape Floristic Region. The diversity of fynbos plants is greater than that of the tropical rainforests, with over 9,000 species of plants occurring in the area, around 6,200 of which occur nowhere else.

Fynbos flowers near Cape Town
(Photo by Damien du Toit)

Of the world’s six floral kingdoms, this is the smallest and richest in biological diversity, and visitors come from around the world to see these unique plants.

Satellite images in the Atlas show the loss of trees and shrubs in the fragile environment of the Jebel Marra foothills in western Sudan. These plants are disappearing as a result of population growth partly due to an influx of refugees fleeing drought and conflict in neighboring Northern Darfur.

Other images show the rapid expansion of Senegalese capital Dakar over the past half century from a small urban center at the tip of the Cap Vert Peninsula to a metropolitan area of 2.5 million people spread over the entire peninsula.

Between 1990 and 2004, many African countries achieved some small but promising environmental improvements, mainly in the field of water and sanitation, according to the atlas. A few countries have expanded protected areas, which number more than 3,000 across the continent.

Positive signs of protective management also can be seen in the satellite images.

A small herd of scimitar-horned oryx
(Photo by Antonio di Croce
courtesy IUCN)

Action to halt overgrazing in Tunisia’s Sidi Toui National Park has produced a rebound in the natural ecosystem. The park has hosted the reintroduction of the scimitar-horned oryx, Oryx dammah, which is on the verge of extinction.

New policies and improved enforcement have reduced unsustainable exploitation of the forests of Mount Kenya, which is a crucial area for water catchment and hydro-power generation.

Farmer initiatives focusing on the planting and protection of trees have led to land revitalization in Tahoua Province, Niger. A recent study shows there are now 10 to 20 times more trees across three of Niger’s southern provinces than there were in the 1970s.

A review of forest concessions in Liberia has helped protect the forest in Sapo National Park from logging as well as illegal mining and poaching.

Steiner said, “The atlas also, however, clearly demonstrates the vulnerability of people in the region to forces often outside their control, including the shrinking of glaciers in Uganda and Tanzania and impacts on water supplies linked with climate change.”

“These underline the urgent need for the international community to deliver a new climate agreement by the Climate Change Convention meeting in Copenhagen in late 2009, one that not only delivers deep emission reductions but also accelerates the flow of funds for adaptation and the climate proofing of economies,” he said.

Main Findings and Key Concerns

Loss of forest is a major concern in 35 countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Nigeria and Rwanda, among others.

Another crucial concern is biodiversity loss, which is occurring in 34 countries such as Angola, Ethiopia, Gabon and Mali.

Land degradation is a major worry for 32 countries, including Cameroon, Eritrea and Ghana. Other problems include desertification – in Burkina Faso, Chad, Kenya and Niger, among other countries – as well as water stress, rising pollution and coping with rapid urbanization.

This map from the atlas shows rates of
deforestation by country. Red countries
are losing more than 15 percent of
their forest cover per year. (Map
courtesy “Africa: Atlas of Our
Changing Environment”)

Africa is losing more than four million hectares of forest every year – twice the world’s average deforestation rate, the atlas shows.

Of the 10 countries in the world with the largest annual net loss of forested area, six are in Africa. Africa loses an average of 40,000 km2, or 0.6 percent, of its forests annually, with the greatest losses occurring in heavily forested countries. Logging, land conversion to agriculture and settlements, wildfi res, cutting for fi rewood and charcoal, and civil unrest are the primary causes of deforestation in Africa; many of these pressures are driven by population growth.

Meanwhile, some areas across the continent are said to be losing over 50 metric tonnes of soil per hectare per year.

The atlas also shows that erosion and chemical and physical damage have degraded about 65 percent of the continent’s farmlands.

In addition, slash and burn agriculture, coupled with the high occurrence of lightning across Africa, is thought to be responsible for wildfires.

Africa is the world’s hottest continent with deserts and drylands covering some 60 percent of the entire land surface. Over 300 million people on the continent already face water scarcity, and areas experiencing water shortages in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to increase by almost a third by 2050.

Climate change is emerging as a driving force behind many of these problems and is likely to intensify the already dramatic transformations taking place across the continent.

These farmers in the southern African country
of Lesotho grew enough maize to sell
some to the World Food Programme
despite the worst drought in 30 years.
(Photo by Tamara Kummer courtesy WFP)

Although Africa produces only four percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide emissions, its inhabitants are likely to suffer more from the consequences of global climate change than people in other parts of the world.

Africa’s capacity to adapt to climate change is relatively low, with projected costs estimated to reach at least five to10 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

Refugee migrations are causing further pressure on the environment, with major population movements due to conflict but also increasingly as a result of food and water shortages.

Cooperative approaches involving several bordering countries are becoming essential for the conserving and enhancing of shared ecosystems if they are to remain productive into the 21st century.

Taking advantage of the latest space technology and Earth observation science, including the 36 year legacy of the U.S. Landsat satellite program, the atlas serves to demonstrate the potential of satellite imagery data in monitoring ecosystems and natural resources dynamics. This can provide the kind of hard, evidence-based data to support political decisions aimed at improving management of Africa’s natural resources.

“Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment” [] contains 316 satellite images taken in 104 locations in every country in Africa, along with 151 maps and 319 ground photographs and a series of graphs illustrating the environmental challenges faced by the continent.

All the materials in the Atlas are non-copyrighted and available for free use. Individual satellite images, maps, graphs and photographs can be downloaded from

The digital version of the atlas will be released on Google Earth and other websites. The atlas can also be purchased at

The book is the result of collaborative work between UNEP and partners:

African Association for Remote Sensing of the Environment
African Ministerial Conference on the Environment
Belgian Development Cooperation
Environmental Systems Research Institute
Global Earth Observations Secretariat
Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development EIS-AFRICA
South Dakota State University
Southern African Development Community
University of Maryland
U.S. Agency for the International Development
U.S. Geological Survey
World Resources Institute

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