African Mountain Atlas Could Aid Disaster Planning

Cairo — Hundreds of photos, maps and satellite images about African mountains have been bundled into an atlas to give policymakers clearer information about risks involving mountains, including landslides, volcanic eruptions and the loss of water reserves.

The Africa mountains atlas was launched during the 15th African Ministerial Conference on the Environment in Cairo, Egypt, on 2-6 March. It includes satellite data from 53 countries along with examples of successful initiatives to harness the ecosystems provided by the mountains and plan for potential disasters.

The atlas includes 65 maps, 73 satellite images and hundreds of photos, all of which are copyright free to encourage reproduction and sharing.

Ahmed Abdelrehim, a regional programme manager for the Centre for Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe, says: “The aim behind the atlas is addressing policymakers through visualisation.”

Abdelrehim says the project will help decision-makers monitor urban expansion and associated environmental changes, including their impact on wildlife and the acceleration of climate change effects. The atlas can also contribute to disaster planning, including slower onset catastrophes, such as droughts.

For example, the atlas highlights the importance of mountains as ‘water towers’ for Africa’s largest cities, which draw most of their water from high-altitude rain catchment areas – such as Marrakesh in Morocco, and Nairobi in Kenya. Mountains are also the source of many transboundary river systems such as the Nile, it points out.

In addition to the environmental challenges, the atlas includes success stories to explore how certain strategic interventions and innovations improved living conditions and food security for various mountain communities.

The project took three years to complete, and involves a collaboration between the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the African Union, the Austrian, Norwegian and Swiss development agencies, and the United States Geological Survey.

Samuel Kanyamibwa, executive director of Uganda’s Albertine Rift Conservation Society, which also participated in the programme, says: “Mountains provide some enormous services to people living in the mountains and downstream.”

He tells SciDev.Net how studying mountains and tracking changes to their landscape can offer important evidence of climate change. For example, he says, “observing some of Africa’s big mountains, like Kilimanjaro, over the last 30 years gives a good idea about the changes happening to their glaciers”.

The images show that glacier coverage on Kilimanjaro has fallen from over 40 square kilometres in 1880 to 1.8 square kilometres now. But the atlas says that climate change only influences this indirectly: the direct cause is less precipitation over the mountain that feeds the glaciers.

The atlas is part of a UNEP-funded project to publish a series of reports on Africa’s national resources. The next will be an atlas of Africa’s energy resources, due to be launched in November at a meeting of African energy ministers in South Africa.

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