STOCKHOLM, Aug 24 (IPS) - The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) believes that the growing environmental degradation of Africa is perhaps most starkly reflected in satellite images beamed from the skies.
And so, the Nairobi-based U.N. agency introduced a new atlas at an international water conference here which shows "the dramatic and damaging" environmental changes sweeping across the beleaguered African continent.
"I hope the (satellite) images in the atlas will sound a warning around the world that, 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," says Achim Steiner, the recently-appointed executive director of UNEP.
"Otherwise," he warns, "we face increasing tensions and instability as rising populations compete for life's most precious of precious resources."
These resources -- most of them currently under siege -- include Africa's river basins, fresh water lakes, forests, coastal lagoons and wildlife preserves.
The atlas, released during "World Water Week" concluding Saturday, presents contrasting satellite images of a seemingly unblemished Africa of the past few decades against a contemporary continent under environmental assault.
"The rapid shrinking of Lake Songor in Ghana, partly as a result of intensive salt production, and the extraordinary changes in the Zambezi River system as a result of the building of the Cabora Bassa Dam sit beside more familiar images of the near 90 percent shrinkage of Lake Chad," UNEP said.
According to the U.N. agency, Lake Songor emerges "as one of the most dramatic visual changes in the atlas." Described as a brackish coastal lagoon in Ghana, the lake is home to fish and globally threatened turtles, as well as a vast bird population.
In December 1990, the lake appears as a solid blue mass of water some 74 square kilometres in size. But by December 2000, the water body has been reduced to "a pale shadow of its former self."
The publication, titled "Africa's Lakes: Atlas of our Changing Environment", includes satellite images that portray falling water levels of Lake Victoria, described as Africa's largest freshwater lake and which is currently about a metre lower than it was in the early 1990s.
With some 30 million people living around it, Lake Victoria supports some of the densest and one of the world's poorest populations.
But according to UNEP, about 150,000 square kilometres of land, equal to 25,000 football pitches, have been affected by soil degradation, of which 13 percent has been severely degraded.
The atlas also shows the extensive deforestation around Lake Nakuru in Kenya -- "some natural, some manmade which can only be truly appreciated from space." UNEP says the lake has declined in area: from about 43 kilometres to 40 in 2000.
The statistics continue at an alarming rate: Niger has lost more than 80 percent of its freshwater wetlands over the past two decades.
And close to 90 percent of water in Africa is used in agriculture, of which 40 to 60 percent is lost to seepage and evaporation, according to UNEP.
Additionally, satellites images from 1995 and 2001 indicate that the green swirls of hyacinth have disappeared from many of the bays in Uganda.
Meanwhile, a new study titled "Hydropolitical Vulnerability and Resilience along International Waters in Africa", says rainfall and river flows in Africa have declined steadily over the past 30 years. This is partly due to higher evaporation rates caused by climate change.
"Current water use patterns in the Volta River Basin (in West Africa) have already stretched the available resources almost to their limits, and it will be increasingly difficult to satisfy additional demands," says the report prepared jointly by UNEP and the University of Oregon in the United States.
With the sustainability of the Volta Basin under threat, there is urgent need for basin states to cooperate more closely to jointly manage the basin's water resources. The basin is shared by six countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali and Togo.
The report says that much more needs to be done to beef up legal agreements and treaties among African nations in order to reduce tensions and avoid instability in the future.
A separate study on "Transboundary Water Management" by the Bonn International Centre for Conversion says that several international river basins in southern Africa are also approaching the point of closure, "meaning that no more water is left to be allocated to human use, that all the water of the system is already utilised."
The four most developed nations in the region -- Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe -- "are also facing the greatest scarcity of water."
"They all share international river basins with other states, and they all face significant limitations to their future economic prospects as a result of looming water shortages." (END/2006)