Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment, a new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, uses more than 300 satellite images to tell the story of Africa’s environmental transformation. The photographic evidence of degradation is stark and irrefutable, and it serves as a call to action for protecting the continent’s natural resources. The Atlas was officially released in South Africa in June and the U.S. release is today.
Many of the Atlas’ examples of change may be familiar to the public, such as Lake Chad’s receding water levels (seen in the image above) or the shrinking glaciers of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Others are new or lesser-known, such as the disappearance of Madagascar’s South Malagasy spiny forest or the explosive growth of Dakar, Senegal’s capital. (View more of the dramatic images here.)
The Atlas finds there are many reasons to be concerned about the state of Africa’s environment:
- Africa’s deforestation rate (4 million hectares per year) is the highest in the world.
- 65 percent of the continent’s farmlands are degraded because of erosion and physical damage.
- Water scarcity affects more than 300 million of the continent’s people.
Climate change is a major factor. “The Atlas,” says UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, “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.”
Africa is responsible for only 4 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but the continent’s people will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change—and they are ill-equipped to handle the enormous costs of adaptation.
The Atlas is not all doom and gloom. Rather, it contains many examples of how proper management can lead to positive results. A few success stories from the Atlas:
- Sidi Toui National Park in Southeastern Tunisia: Action on overgrazing has produced a dramatic rebound in the natural ecosystem.
- Itezhi-tezhi Dam in Zambia: A new management plan for the dam led to the restoration of the natural seasonal flooding of the Kafue flats.
- Diawling National Park: A restoration projecting at the park expanded the wetlands and is helping to control flooding and improve livelihoods in Mauritania.
There is hope that the Africa Atlas will spur greater investment in ecosystem management and restoration to improve livelihoods across the continent.
The report draws on 35 years worth of imagery from the US Landsat satellite program. Amy Cassara, Crystal Davis, and Dan Tunstall of the World Resources Institute contributed to the report.