At a glance:
Africa Environment Outlook

Natural resources form the backbone of Africa’s economy, and provide the life-support system for most of its people. As most people directly depend on them for their livelihoods, they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of environmental change. Over the past three decades, the region’s environment has continued to deteriorate and poverty has deepened despite attempts by governments to try to halt and reverse degradation. In the past Africa’s people had well-developed strategies for coping with change, but poverty has both reduced their ability to cope, and increased their vulnerability.

Increased vulnerability to environmental change, in turn, causes greater pressure to be put on the environment. A vicious cycle ensues. Crop failures as a result of recurrent drought and high debt service payments intensify it. The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment requested UNEP to coordinate the production of the region’s first major report on the African environment. Africa Environment Outlook assessed the state of the environment of the region and outlined four scenarios for the future:

  • The Market Forces scenario, where market forces determine economic and social relations and Africa’s future is shaped by the patterns of globalization.

  • The Policy Reform scenario, where strong social and environmental policies temper market-driven prescriptions.

  • The Fortress World scenario, where the world fails to heed the need for strong policy reforms on the environment, the minority elite retreat to protected enclaves, and most people suffer hardship and impoverishment.

  • The Great Transitions scenario, where a new paradigm is developed in response to the challenges of sustainability.

The scenarios showed that population, migration to cities and deforestation all grew most rapidly under the Fortress World Scenario while wealth generation trailed at a slower pace. The Great Transitions scenario, by contrast, performed best against all these yardsticks. The report concludes: ‘African governments must show a greater commitment to solving environmental problems in an integrated manner with other development priorities, such as poverty.’

Desertification afflicts 46 per cent of Africa, affecting some 485 million of its people. More than 2 million hectares of the Ethiopian highlands have been degraded beyond rehabilitation. Much of the continent is particularly vulnerable: three quarters of Kenya, for example, is arid or semi-arid, and 93 per cent of Mauritania is hyper-arid. Soil erosion and desertification are increasing and the problem is likely to intensify over the next three decades as populations continue to grow and the climate becomes more variable.

Shortage of freshwater and its poor quality are the two greatest limits to development in Africa. They constrain farming and industry and give rise to a huge burden of waterborne disease. Climate change is expected to make the situation worse. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change studies suggest that rainfall will decrease in the already arid areas of Eastern and Southern Africa and in the north of Central Africa, increasing drought and desertification. In West Africa the countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria all face water scarcity by 2025.

Six of the world’s 25 international biodiversity hotspots are in Africa. Four out of every five flowering plants in Madagascar are endemic; the island ranks sixth for endemism among all the countries of the world. Over the last 30 years the protection of biodiversity has strengthened and recently there has been a shift of emphasis towards sustainable use and the sharing of its benefits. Yet it is continuing to decline.

Forests cover about 22 per cent of the region, but they are disappearing faster than anywhere else in the developing world. During the 1980s Africa lost 10.5 per cent of its forests. They protect and stabilize soils, recycle nutrients and regulate the quality and flow of water. They also perform a global service by soaking up carbon dioxide that would otherwise help accelerate global warming: they cover 45 per cent of Central Africa, where the Congo Basin boasts the world’s second largest area of contiguous forest. Reserves have been set up, but the pressure on forests remains serious.

Urban areas
More than three out of every five Africans still live in rural areas, but the rate of migration to towns and cities – 3.8 per cent a year – is one of the highest in the world: in Malawi it is 6.4 per cent. Slums are proliferating, and governments and local authorities have not been able to meet the increased demands for housing and basic services.

Africa Environment Outlook is available for US$37.50 plus postage and packing from Earthprint Ltd, PO Box 119, Stevenage, Herts SG1 4TP or by e-mail from

FOTOS: UNEP/Topham, Wiham Kwandee/UNEP/Topham, Lim Sip Li/UNEP/Topham, Benebo Iketubosin/UNEP/Topham, Essam M. Moawad/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Unmatched opportunities | Global priority | Partnerships for change | Rising to new challenges | Much achieved, more to do | Message to the Second GEF Assembly | Africa Environment Outlook | Critical energy | Mapping the health of the planet | Regaining ground | Two to tango | Linking knowledge to action | Globalizing benefits | Unpopular POPs | Message to the Second GEF Assembly

Complementary articles in other issues:
At a glance: GEO-3 (WSSD) 2002