East Africa: The mountains that are shrinking

By the 1800s, the glaciers on mountains Kenya, Rwenzori and Kilimanjaro had already started receding. The situation has become worse over the years and threaten the livelihoods of communities around the mountains.

By PATRICK MAYOYO, Daily Monitor, Uganda, 22 August 2013

Millions of people who depend on mountain climbing tourism in East Africa and investors in the sector are at risk and could lose billions of shillings in revenue due to shrinking glaciers on the region’s leading mountains, studies have revealed.

The studies show that there is rapid receding of glaciers on East Africa’s mountains that include Mt Kenya, Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Rwenzori , which are the main source of attractions for tourists from different parts of the world.

According to a United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) study and studies by other environmental experts, glacier loss on the three East African top mountains is likely to mean the loss of tourism revenues that are vitally important to the economies of Kenya and Tanzania especially.

Tanzania received 945,794 tourists in 2012 while the number of international tourists’ arrivals in Kenya stood at 1.7 million during the same period.

Tourism earned Kenya more than Shs96b in foreign revenue in 2012, while Tanzania earned Shs109.3b.

Most of these billions could be wiped out unless the two countries employ mitigating measures against global warming and other environmental impacts.

“Policies will need to address how to adapt to these impacts, at the time as they promote economic development without increasing fossil fuel dependency and using inefficient technologies,” the UNEP study says.

It shows Africa’s glaciers began to recede in the 1880s, and between 1906 and 2006, they lost about 82 per cent of their area and the larger glaciers became fragmented.

Effects on the community

Mr Godfrey Onyango, an environmental scientist says the disappearance of glaciers on the three East Africa mountains would not only have effects on the tourism sector but also agriculture, electricity generation and the economy in general.

“The communities living around the mountains will be hard hit because the mountains play a very important role in regulating the climate of the surrounding areas by contributing on the relief rainfall and balancing of the ecosystem there,” he said.

The study says glaciers are one important source of the planet’s freshwater; they store and release it seasonally, replenishing the rivers and groundwaters that provide people and ecosystems with life-sustaining water.

“Declining glacier melt will affect agriculture, domestic supplies, hydroelectricity and industry in the lowlands and cities far from the mountains,” the study says.

Prof Bancy Mati, a lecturer in water management at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), says if glaciers on the three peaks dry up, there is a possibility of rivers having little or no flows during the dry season, resulting in declining water availability for communities downstream.

Prof Mati said glaciers lock water up on a mountain, which melts during the dry season adding that some rivers around Mt Kenya have their sources from the glaciers.

“Since glaciers occur above the tree/forest line/ alpine vegetation on Mt. Kenya, then remedial interventions can only be relevant on national, continental and global levels whereby we reduce Green House Gas (GHGs) emissions and their effect in heating the environment (which in turn melts glaciers),” she says.

Mr Onyango notes that some of the possible measures which can be taken to mitigate or reduce effects of climate change are control of population growth, which is the main driver in consumption of resources and conflict on use of resources.

“Other measures include crafting laws which regulate consumption of resources, control of emission of greenhouse gases by legislation, encouraging more carbon trading and reduce encroaching of forest areas, which are near mountains,” Mr Onyango added.

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.

The report adds that 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. Emerging evidence suggests the decline has accelerated since the 1970s.” .

Communities living around the three East Africa mountains have started experiencing effects of the disappearing glaciers. Mr Faris Mtui, a resident of Marangu-Mbahe village in Moshi on the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, points out that some of the effects of the diminishing glaciers on Mt Kilimanjaro have started being felt.

“There is not only change in weather patterns, but some plants that were found around the mountain when we were children have disappeared. A number of springs and water falls in our village have also dried up,” he said.

Mr Mtui who is also a tour guide on Mt Kilimanjaro said some of the waterfalls that have dried up include, Monjo, Kona and Kipungulu. “The red cabbage, a medicinal plant that villagers around this mountain used to treat fractures in the 1970s has disappeared,” he said.

No more snow

Mtui said in the 1970s and 1980s there used to be snowing in villages around Mt Kilimanjaro but today there is no more snow.

“Currently, we are experiencing a change in weather patterns. For example, in June in the 1970s we used to burn grass, because it was sunny, but today in June it rains heavily,” he added. Efforts to get a comment from Tanzania National Parks were unsuccessful as the PR manager did not respond to our questions.

However, during my recent visit to Mt Kilimanjaro, I came across a public notice issued to tour guides and mountain climbers spelling out stringent measures to curb environmental degradation on the mountain.

According to the UNEP study, the glacial loss on East Africa’s mountains that began in the 1880s is thought to have been due to declining precipitation and less cloudiness leading to higher solar radiation.

“Studies of the Lewis Glacier on Mount Kenya found that higher temperatures during the 1900s were a greater cause of its shrinking than sun exposure,” the report adds.

It says warming during the 20th century and associated rises in atmospheric humidity, along with a possible contribution of continued solar radiation are the causes of Mt Kenya’s recent ice losses.

Mr Hiram Munune, a career mountain climber and tour guide says the latest glacier to disappear on Mt Kenya is the Gregory glacier. He says the water levels in rivers around Mt Kenya have reduced drastically due to diminishing glaciers on the mountain and the situation is severe during dry seasons.

How the journey started

My interest in diminishing glaciers on mountains in East Africa started in 2009. It was a result of an initiative launched by Nation Media Group (NMG) to raise funds for millions facing hunger.

I joined the team of volunteers who decided to climb Mt Kenya in support of this humanitarian mission.

It took the climbers, most of them from NMGabout four days to reach the summit. I was among those who managed to reach the peak after some of our colleagues could not make it due to adverse weather conditions.

On my way up the 5,199m mountain, something strange caught my attention. The sight of dried up glaciers. Inquiries from our guide, Mr Munuhe, showed a big story was developing.

It was during these sessions that Munuhe started sharing with me the story of shrinking glaciers on Mt Kenya.

“The truth is glaciers on Mt Kenya are disappearing at an alarming rate but few people are taking notice,” he said.

After accomplishing my first mountain climbing mission, I started researching on the phenomenon that is the shrinking glaciers on mountains in East Africa.

The NMG humanitarian initiative was going on and the next mountain for volunteers to tackle was Mt Kilimanjaro.

Come 2011, we headed to Tanzania. During our way up I noticed the same phenomenon like that on Mt Kenya, glaciers which had dried up. An interview with our guide, Mzee Arusha revealed that even Mt Kilimanjaro had not been spared from the effects of climate change and other environmental impacts.

After I successfully summited Mt Kilimanjaro, and conquered Africa’s tallest mountain, my focus turned to receding glaciers on both Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro. I started reaching out to experts to try unraveling this phenomenon.

In 2011, during the African Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, which was sponsored by Forum for African Investigative Journalists (FAIR) I shared this story idea with my colleagues who encouraged me to apply for a grant from FAIR.

When I did it this year, I was awarded the grant. This prompted me to go back and study this phenomenon and the result is this story that spotlights the shrinking glaciers on Africa’s leading peaks.


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