New atlas highlights important role of mountain ecosystems for Africa’s economies and development

The huge development challenges facing Africa’s mountain ecosystems have for the first time been presented in clear and visual messages in a new atlas compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Mountain Atlas Cape Town water supply_UNEP

An estimated 97 per cent of Cape Town’s water supply relies on surface water from mountain catchment areas. Photo: UNEP.

The newly published Africa Mountain Atlas makes a major contribution to the state of knowledge about mountain ecosystems in Africa by highlighting the opportunities and challenges for sustainable development of mountain areas. The Atlas uses hundreds of ‘before and after’ images, detailed new maps and other satellite data from 53 countries to show the problems facing Africa’s mountain areas, such as landslides in Mount Elgon and Rwenzori, volcanic eruptions, and receding glaciers. It also includes examples of innovative and successful initiatives that are effectively harnessing the ecosystem services provided by the mountains.

Some of the most compelling images in the Atlas, include the dramatic reduction in mountain glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Ruwenzori, as well as the proximity of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Nyiragongo Mountain – one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

Research undertaken for the Atlas reveals approximately 27 per cent of Africa’s mountainous areas to be susceptible to destructive earthquakes, defined as Level VIII or greater on the Modified Mercalli scale. The East African Rift system, which extends from the Afar triple junction 3,000 km south to Lake Malawi, is the largest active rift in the world.

The average population density in mountain areas is more than triple that in the lowlands. In Rwanda – one of Africa’s most mountainous countries – the available arable land per family is 0.6 hectares (ha), with 25 percent of families possessing less than 0.2 ha.

In addition to mountain ecosystem challenges, the Atlas maps out new solutions and success stories from across the continent. It contains detailed mapping of how strategic interventions and innovations are improving the food security and livelihoods of mountain communities in different parts of Africa. The Atlas also highlights how traditional knowledge is being used to adapt to the impacts of climate change on Mount Kenya, on the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, and on the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania, among others.

The Atlas, which aims to provide information support to AMCEN’s strategic agenda on mountains, shows how climate change induced water stress in the mountain areas will compound the challenges of water scarcity in Africa with negative implications for development.

Prepared in cooperation with the African Union, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Government of Norway, Austrian Development Cooperation, United States Geological Survey, University of Bern and Albertine Rift Conservation Society, the 291-page Atlas consolidates information about the role of mountain ecosystems in Africa’s economies and development, health, food security, and transboundary cooperation in one comprehensive and accessible volume.

Mountains role in providing water for cities

The Atlas draws attention to Africa’s “water towers”, which are sources of water for some of Africa’s major cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, Marrakech, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and for many of Africa’s transboundary rivers and contribute immensely to the total stream flow of African major rivers.

An estimated 97 per cent of Cape Town’s water supply relies on surface water from mountain catchment areas. Cape Town wraps around Table Mountain National Park, the largest urban park in South Africa and a popular destination for tourists. Population growth has placed a strain on water resources, and future climate change could have an impact on stream flow, evapotranspiration rates and rainfall patterns. Already the city has had to expand its reach to the Boland Mountain as a water source, using water from the Berg, Theewaters, Voelvlei and Steenbras dams to satisfy its water needs.

According to the analysis in the Africa Mountains Atlas, many of Africa’s water towers – from the Middle Atlas Range in Morocco through to the Lesotho Highlands in Southern Africa – are under extreme pressure as a result of deforestation, open cast mining and encroachment.

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