War, fire threaten ‘water towers of the world’

War, fire, logging and agriculture are taking a heavy toll on Africa’s mountain regions, says the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

In a statement on Wednesday highlighting key aspects of a report on the state of the world’s mountains, it says over two-thirds of the continent’s mountain regions have been affected by ”high intensity conflict”.

The ”Mountain Watch” report is set to be presented to heads of state, ministers and other delegates at the Global Mountain Summit — which runs from October 29 to November 1 — in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Described as ”the first map-based assessment of environmental change in mountain areas”, the report was compiled by UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) as a contribution to the International Year of the Mountains (2002).

”Almost half of Africa’s mountain regions are estimated to now be under the plough or the hoof,” the report says. An estimated 10% of mountain areas on the continent were converted to cropland, and 34% turned over to grazing.

Africa’s mountain regions were experiencing multiple pressures, including ”conversion of forests and other mountain terrain to grazing land, fire, and violent human conflict”.

”The highest level of mountain land that has witnessed war is in Africa. Here, 67% has been impacted by high intensity conflict,” the report says.

According to Klaus Toepfer, UNEP executive director, the Mountain Watch report ”highlights how some of these last wild areas are fast disappearing in the face of agriculture, infrastructure development and other creeping impacts.

”Behind all these is the spectre of climate change, which is already taking its toll on the glaciers and changing plant and animal communities in high altitude areas,” he said. This threatened the health and well-being of all the world’s people.

”Mountains are the water towers of the world. We must act to conserve them for the benefit of mountain people, for the benefit of human-kind.”

A key finding of the report is the extent to which agriculture has intensified in mountain areas. ”Much of the conversion to crop or grazing land is leading to loss of forests and other land cover, which can accelerate erosion and soil loss, as well as have impacts on wildlife and water resources.”

WCMC director Mark Collins said the report highlighted the main causes of environmental change in mountains. These included natural hazards, fire, climate change, infrastructure growth, violent human conflict, changes in land cover and agricultural intensification.

Mountains cover almost a quarter of the world’s land surface. – Sapa

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