Africa’s shrinking lakes will cause instability, UNEP warns

Africa's lakes are shrinking at an alarming rate and will lead to political instability unless more is done to strengthen shared agreements over water use, the UNEP has warned.

The evidence was presented in an Atlas of African Lakes which compares and contrasts satellite images of the past few decades with contemporary ones, and in a report entitled Hydropolitical Vulnerability and Resilience along International Waters in Africa. Both were unveiled at the opening of the 11th World Lake Conference in Nairobi. .

Klaus Toepfor, UNEP’s Executive Director said he hoped the images would galvanise delegates into action. “If we are to overcome poverty and meet internationally agreed development goals by 2015, the sustainable management of Africa’s lakes must be part of the equation. Otherwise we face increasing tensions and instability as rising populations compete for life’s most precious of precious resources.”

The report concludes that much more needs to be done to strengthen water sharing agreements on the continent’s major water systems, citing the Volta river basin in West Africa, shared between Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali and Togo, as being a particular source of concern.

Demand for water is set to double over the next 20 years, with the predicted rise on population, while rainfall and river flows have been steadily declining over the past 30 years.

Damming of rivers, over extraction, intensive salt production and evaporation have all also taken their toll on the lakes volumes. Nearly 90% of water in Africa is used in agriculture, of which 40 – 60% is lost to seepage and evaporation the report says.

Habitat loss around the lakes has also contributed to decline of the lakes as it has speeded up the evaporation process.

The volume of usable freshwater has also declined as a result of the disposal of untreated sewage and industrial pollution in the lakes. This has had particularly drastic results on fish populations with the catches for local reduced considerably.

Many wetlands associated with lakes and river systems and useful for water supplies and filtering of pollutants, are also disappearing as countries drain them as pest control measures or for agriculture.

Niger, for example, has lost more than 80% of its freshwater wetlands over the past 20 or so years.

The 11th World Lake Conference will continue all week and the Atlas of African Lakes will be published for the public in 2006.

David Hopkins

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