Climate crisis causes meltdown of Africa’s three mountain glaciers

Africa’s mountain glaciers are melting so quickly that they’re likely to vanish within the next 20 years, a new United Nations-backed report on the devastating effects of climate change on the continent has warned.

Only three of Africa’s mountains are covered by glaciers: Mount Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) and the Rwenzori Mountains (Uganda), but they are all retreating faster than the global mean.

“The rapid shrinking of the last remaining glaciers in eastern Africa, which are expected to melt entirely in the near future, signals the threat of imminent and irreversible change to the Earth system,” wrote Petteri Taalas, the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation, in the report’s foreword.

Although the glaciers are too small to act as significant water reservoirs, they are of “eminent touristic and scientific importance”, the report said. 

As with glaciers in other mountain ranges, African glaciers reached their maximum extent in about 1880. “Since then, they have been shrinking and are now at less than 20% of their early 20th century extent. Retreat rates are higher than the global mean. If current retreat rates prevail, the African mountains will be de-glaciated by the 2040s.”

Mount Kenya is likely to lose its glacier in the 2030s, “which will make it one of the first entire mountain ranges to lose glaciers due to anthropogenic [human-caused] climate change”.

Ralph Clark, the director of the Afromontane research unit at the University of Free State — who stressed that he is not a glaciologist or a climatologist — pointed out how tropical glaciers are all in the same boat. Tropical glaciers are melting away in the Andes, are almost extinct in New Guinea and are disappearing in Papua, Indonesia. 

“Sadly, there is nothing really that can be done about it,” Clark said. “Climate change mitigation (efforts to reduce or prevent emission of greenhouse gases) will be too late for most tropical glaciers.” 

Mounting food insecurity

The multi-agency report, the second in a series on climate change in Africa, is a collaborative product of the World Meteorological Organisation, the African Union Commission, the Economic Commission for Africa through the Africa Climate Policy Centre, international and regional scientific organisations and UN agencies.

In 2020, according to the report, the continent’s climate indicators were characterised by continued warming temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, accelerating sea-level rise, extreme weather and climate events such as floods and droughts, triggering mounting food insecurity, poverty and displacement.

By 2030, the report said, up to 118 million extremely poor people in Africa will be exposed to drought, floods and extreme heat if adequate response measures are not put in place. “This will place additional burdens on poverty alleviation efforts and significantly hamper growth in prosperity,” said the report.

In sub-Saharan Africa, climate change could shrink GDP by up to 3% by 2050.

Investment in climate adaptation for sub-Saharan Africa will cost between $30-billion to $50-billion each year over the next decade, or roughly 2% to 3% of GDP.

Africa continues to spend a significant proportion of its income on adaptation to climate change, according to the report. “It is estimated that countries spend between 2% to 9% of their GDP on adaptation to climate change. The cost of adapting to climate change in Africa will rise to $50-billion per year by 2050, even assuming the international efforts to keep global warming below 2°C.”

Climate-resilient development, it said, requires investments in hydrometeorological infrastructure and early warning systems to prepare for “escalating high-impact hazardous events”, with the report describing how rapid implementation of African adaptation strategies will spur economic development and generate more jobs in support of economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Key messages

  • Africa has warmed faster than the global average temperature over land and ocean combined. Last year ranked between the third and eighth warmest year on record for Africa, depending on the dataset used.
  • The rates of sea-level rise along the tropical and South Atlantic coasts and Indian Ocean coast are higher than the global mean rate, at about 3.6mm a year and 4.1mm a year, respectively. 
  • The continent experienced higher than normal precipitation, accompanied by flooding, mostly in the Sahel, the Rift Valley, the central Nile catchment and north-eastern Africa, the Kalahari Basin and the lower course of the Congo River. 
  • Dry conditions prevailed in the northern coast of the Gulf of Guinea and in north-western Africa and along the south-eastern part of the continent. The drought in Madagascar triggered a humanitarian crisis.
  • There was extensive flooding across many parts of East Africa. Countries reporting loss of life or significant displacement included the Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Chad, Nigeria (which also experienced drought in the southern part), Niger, Benin, Togo, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. “Many lakes and rivers reached record high levels, including Lake Victoria (in May) and the Niger River at Niamey and the Blue Nile at Khartoum (in September).
  • The compounded effects of protracted conflicts, political instability, climate variability, pest outbreaks and economic crises – exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic – were the key drivers of a significant increase in food insecurity. A desert locust invasion of historic proportions, which began in 2019, continued to cause harm in East and the Horn of Africa in 2020. Last year there was an almost 40% increase in population affected by food insecurity compared with the previous year.

An estimated 12% of all new population displacements worldwide occurred in the East and Horn of Africa region, with more than 1.2 million new disaster-related displacements and almost 500 000 new conflict-related displacements. Floods and storms contributed the most to internal disaster-related displacement, followed by droughts.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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