African glaciers are melting rapidly due to climate change, and some could disappear within a decade, threatening the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on them for domestic and industrial water needs, the United Nations Environment Program said in a new report.
The UNEP Global Environmental Alert Service (GEAS) report for this month said ice caps in Africa are shrinking dramatically in terms of both thickness and surface area as the planet warms.
“Africa’s glaciers began to recede between 1906 and 2006; they lost about 82 percent of their area and the larger glaciers became fragmented. Melting glaciers will affect agriculture, domestic water supplies, hydropower and industry in the lowlands and cities far from the mountains,” the report says.
East Africa’s glaciers on Mt. Kilimanjaro, Mt. Ruwenzori and Mt. Kenya are concentrated near the equator. They currently cover a radius of 10.7 square kilometers and are an important source of freshwater for downstream populations.
Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mt. Kenya are the epicenter of glacial melt, according to decades of scientific assessment.
“An estimated 82 percent of the ice cap that covered Mt. Kilimanjaro is now gone, and the remaining ice is thinning by one meter annually. If the recession continues at the present rate, the remaining glaciers could vanish in the next decade,” says the UNEP report.
Only 10 out of 18 glaciers that covered Mt. Kenya a century ago remain, leaving less than one-third of the previous ice cover.
“Emerging evidence suggests the decline has accelerated since the 1970s .By 2010, Lewis Glacier, the largest on Mt. Kenya had decreased by 90 percent in its volume,” the report says.
Very little research has been conducted to measure the extent of glacier loss on Mt. Ruwenzori, even though casual observation reveals a gradual loss of ice on the mountain peaks.
Climate change has influenced glacier loss in these mountains and the trend will continue without broad interventions, the report warns.
“In mountainous regions where glacial melt contributes to river flows, climate change will significantly affect associated aquatic ecosystems and the human activities dependent on them,” it says.
“At first, meltwater inputs will increase river run off,” observes the report. Tourism will subsequently be affected, which will have a negative impact on the economies of Kenya and Tanzania.
UNEP challenged governments in the region to establish policy, legal and technological tools to protect both human populations and ecosystems from the impacts of climate change.