By PATRICK MAYOYO
Hundreds of articles have been written about it, thousands of theories formulated around it, and millions of shillings spent studying it. And now the evidence is out: the glaciers on the roofs of East Africa’s highest mountains are shrinking at an alarming rate, putting into jeopardy the economies that thrive around them and the livelihoods of people hundreds, even thousands, of kilometres away.
Studies show that Mts Kenya in Kenya, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Ruwenzori in Uganda are not as cold at the top as they were barely half a century ago, meaning the spectre of ice on the equator could soon be no more.
The United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep), in collaboration with environmental experts, spent months studying the receding patterns of the glaciers of these peaks, and now warns that, other than the agricultural and drainage effects they may have on the communities downstream, they could also heavily affect tourism, a major economic earner especially in Kenya and Tanzania.
Tanzania received 945,794 tourists in 2012 while the number of international tourist arrivals in Kenya stood at 1.7 million during the same period. But, despite hosting more tourists than Tanzania over the same period, Kenya only earned slightly above Sh96 billion in foreign revenue while Tanzania pocketed Sh109.3 billion.
Most of these billions could be wiped out if the region does not employ mitigating measures against global warming and other environmental impacts, experts now warn.
“Policies will need to address how to adapt to these impacts as they promote economic development without increasing fossil fuel dependency and using inefficient technologies,” the UN study advises.
Scientists believe Africa’s glaciers began to recede in the 1880s, and that, between 1906 and 2006, these three mountains lost about 82 per cent of their total ice area as larger glaciers became fragmented.
Mr Godfrey Onyango, an environmental scientist, forecasts a bleak economic future for the region if nothing is done to reverse this trend, arguing that dry mountain peaks would not only negatively affect the tourism sector, but also agriculture, electricity generation and the economy in general.
“Communities living around the mountains would be hard hit because the mountains play a very important role in regulating the climate of the surrounding areas through relief rainfall and balancing of the ecosystem,” he says.
Glaciers are an important source of the planet’s fresh water; they store and release it seasonally, replenishing the rivers and ground waters that provide people and ecosystems with life-sustaining produce all year round. “Melting glaciers will affect agriculture, domestic supplies, hydroelectricity and industry in the lowlands and cities far from the mountains,” the study warns.
Prof Bancy Mati, a lecturer in water management at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, says if glaciers on the three peaks dry up, the possibility of rivers having little or no flows during the dry season is even greater, resulting in declining water availability for communities downstream.
Glaciers, acting as mammoth natural reservoirs, preserve water up a mountain then slowly release it through melting during the dry season, replenishing life down rivers all the way to the open seas and oceans.
Mr Onyango says one of the possible mitigating measures against climate change is control of population growth, which is the main driver of consumption of resources and conflict over the same.
“Other measures include crafting laws that regulate consumption of resources, control of emission of greenhouse gases by legislation, encouraging more carbon trading and reducing encroachment of forest areas,” he adds.
Regardless of the relative contributions the different causes make to the shrinking glaciers, if present climatic conditions continue, the African glaciers will disappear within several decades. For instance, only 10 of the 18 glaciers that covered Mt Kenya’s summit a century ago remain, leaving less than one third of the previous ice cover.
“The ice on Mt Kenya has also become thinner,” the study reports. “Emerging evidence suggests the decline has accelerated since the 1970s.”
As scientists and policy makers scratch their heads over what to do, communities living around the three East African mountains have already started experiencing the effects of the ‘meltdown’ high up in the clouds. Mr Faris Mtui, a resident of Marangu-Mbahe village in Moshi, a bustling town at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, is one of them.
“We have noted not just changing weather patterns,” he says, “but also changing environments. Some of the plants found around here about 30 years ago are no more while a number of springs and waterfalls in our village have dried up.”
Mr Mtui, who is also a tour guide on Mt Kilimanjaro, says some of the waterfalls that have dried up in his native region include, Monjo, Kona and Kipungulu.
“The red cabbage, a medicinal plant that villagers around this mountain used to treat fractures with in the 1970s, has also disappeared, followed by tens of other plants,” he says, adding that in the 1970s and 1980s there used to be regular snow falls in the villages around Mt Kilimanjaro, “but today there is none of that”.
“The change in weather patterns is also worryingly evident,” Mr Mtui says. “For example, while in the months of June in the 1970s we used to burn grass in our farms — because it was sunny — in preparation of the planting season, today it rains heavily in June.”
The United Nations says glacial loss on East Africa’s mountains began in the 1880s as a result of declining precipitation and less cloudiness, leading to higher solar radiation.
Studies of the Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya, for instance, found that higher temperatures during the 1900s were a greater cause of its shrinking than sun exposure, but gradual warming during the 20th century and associated rises in atmospheric humidity, along with a possible contribution of continued solar radiation, accelerated the mountain’s recent ice losses.
This story was jointly sponsored by the Nation Media Group and the Forum for African Investigative Reporters through the SIDA programme.