New atlas shows Africa's vulnerable water resources in striking detail

Addis Ababa/Nairobi— December 6, 2010 —The major challenges facing Africa's water resources have been laid out in striking clarity in a new atlas compiled by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The Africa Water Atlas uses hundreds of 'before and after' shots, detailed new maps and satellite images from 53 countries to show the problems facing Africa's water supplies, such as the drying of Lake Chad and the erosion of the Nile Delta, as well as new, successful methods of conserving water.

Some of the most arresting images in the Atlas, which was launched during Africa Water Week in Addis Ababa, include green clouds of eroded soil and agricultural run-off in Uganda, pollution from oil spills in Nigeria and a 3km segment of the Nile Delta that has been lost to erosion.

Research carried out for the Atlas shows that the amount of water available per person in Africa is declining. At present, only 26 of the continent's 53 countries are on track to attain the water-provision target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to reduce by half the proportion of the population without sustainable access to drinking water by 2015.

Furthermore, only nine African countries (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Rwanda, Botswana, Angola, South Africa and Egypt) are expected to attain the MDG target of reducing by half the proportion of the population without sustainable access to basic sanitation by 2015.

But in addition to these water challenges, the Atlas maps out new solutions and success stories from across the continent. It contains the first detailed mapping of how rainwater conservation is improving food security in drought-prone regions. Images also reveal how irrigation projects in Kenya, Senegal and Sudan are helping to improve food security.

The Atlas, compiled by UNEP at the request of the African Ministers' Council on Water (AMCOW) shows how the challenges of water scarcity in Africa are compounded by high population growth, socioeconomic and climate change impacts and, in some cases, policy choices.

Prepared in cooperation with the African Union, European Union, US Department of State and United States Geological Survey, the 326-page atlas gathers information about the role of water in Africa's economies and development, health, food security, transboundary cooperation, capacity building and environmental change in one comprehensive and accessible volume.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said: "The dramatic changes sweeping Africa linked with both positive and negative management of this continent's vital water resources is graphically brought home in this Atlas.

"From the dams triggering erosion on the Nile Delta to pollution in the Niger River Basin, the way infrastructure development or uncontrolled oil spills are impacting the lives and livelihoods of people are all brought into sharp relief. But so too are the many attempts towards sustainable management of freshwaters - for example the controlled releases from dams on Chad's Logone River that are restoring in part the natural flooding cycles leading to the recovery of economically-important ecosystems," he said.

"Previous atlases in which UNEP has partnered have triggered change including sparking government efforts to restore the Mau forest complex in Kenya to Lake Faguibine in Mali. I am sure that the before and after images presented in this Africa Water Atlas can also catalyze both greater awareness of the challenges and the choices and decisive, restorative and sustainable action on the ground," added Mr. Steiner.

In total, the Africa Water Atlas features over 224 maps and 104 satellite images as well as some 500 graphics and hundreds of compelling photos. The 'before' and 'after' photographs, some of which span a 35-year period, offer striking snapshots of local ecosystem transformation in several watersheds being converted to agriculture across the continent.

In addition to well-publicised changes, such as the drying up of Lake Chad, one of the Sahel's largest freshwater reservoirs, or the declining Lake Faguibine in the Niger River Basin and falling water levels in Lake Victoria, the Africa Water Atlas presents satellite images of lesser-known environmental challenges including:

  • Erosion and sinking of the Nile Delta: The Rosetta Promontory lost over 3 km to erosion between 1968 and 2009, while the Damietta Promontory eroded 1.5 km between 1965 and 2008. Furthermore, the delta is currently sinking under its own weight, as new deposits of soil no longer offset the natural effect of soil compaction.
  • Surface runoff from the Entebbe area south of Kampala, Uganda shows up as greenish clouds expanding out into the water as eroded soil, agricultural runoff and domestic waste runs into Lake Victoria, degrading water quality.
  • In the Niger River Basin, thousands of oil spills, totaling over three million barrels of oil and wastewater from oil production, are among the primary causes of a serious decline in water quality.
  • Overflow from Egypt's Lake Nasser spillway created the Toshka lakes, which have since largely disappeared due to evaporation and, to a lesser degree, infiltration.

The Africa Water Atlas also draws attention to Africa's "water towers", which are sources for many of Africa's transboundary rivers and contribute immensely to the total stream flow of African major rivers. These supply life-giving resources and services in downstream areas such as water for hydropower, wildlife and tourism, small and large scale agriculture, municipalities and ecosystem services. The Water Atlas shows that most of these 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 and encroachment.

  • Many areas of the Mau Forest Complex, the largest of Kenya's water towers, had already been converted to agriculture in the 1970s. Over 100 000 ha of forest, representing roughly one-quarter of the Mau Complex's area, have been destroyed since 2000. By 2009, several additional large forest areas had been converted to agriculture.

Africa is known to be a global "hotspot" for water constrained, rain-fed agriculture and climate-driven food insecurity with about 100 million people in Africa living in these areas. But new research, captured in the Atlas, reveals that there are also "hopespots" in drought-prone environments where there is enormous potential for expanding simple water-harvesting techniques.

For the first time, the wide distribution of these "hopespots" has been overlain on a map. Images from the Water Atlas show how the successful harvesting of rainwater in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Kenya, is already mitigating the risk for farmers and helping to reduce food insecurity in their communities.

The Atlas also highlights positive examples of water management that are protecting against, and even reversing, degradation.

  • The damming of the Logone River in the Lake Chad Basin in the 1970s coincided with a period of drought that reduced overbank flooding and disrupted local livelihoods on the Waza Logone Floodplain. Managed releases from the dam beginning in the 1990s restored some of the natural flooding, bringing improved grazing and the return of other valuable ecosystem functions.
  • Sudan's massive Gezira Irrigation Scheme, built in the early 20th century, and other schemes such as Rahad, New Halfa and the Kenana Sugar Plantation, which were built in the 1960s and 1970s, help rank Sudan second in Africa after Egypt in terms of land under irrigation.
  • Along the Senegal River, irrigation schemes beginning in the 1940s and other large investments in the 1980s, including the construction of the Manantali Dam in Mali and the Diama Dam in Senegal, have increased irrigation potential within the Senegal Basin.
  • The Great Man-Made River Project in Libya, which began roughly 30 years ago, is among the largest civil engineering projects in the world. The project brings water from well fields in the Sahara to Libya's growing population. The majority of the system's water comes from Libya's two largest groundwater resources?the Murzuq and Kufra groundwater basins. As much as 80 per cent of Libya's groundwater is used for agriculture.

Main Findings and Key Concerns

The main findings of the Africa Water Atlas present challenges and opportunities for Africa as the continent strives to improve the quantity, quality and use of its water resources. These challenges focus on the two-sided nature of water issues in Africa: surplus and scarcity, under developed and over-exploited.

Overall, according to the authors, more than 40 percent of Africa's population lives in arid, semi-arid and dry humid areas. The amount of water available per person in Africa is far below the global average and is declining. Groundwater is falling and rainfall is also declining in some regions. Development of water resources is inadequate and prices to access water are generally distorted, with water provision highly inefficient.

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