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East Africa: Loss of ecosystems worsens drought

Loss of key ecosystems worsens deadly drought in east Africa: UN

12 January 2006 – The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warned today that the drought devastating East Africa is deepening because of global climate change as well as the ongoing destruction of forests, grasslands, wetlands and other critical ecosystems.

“Drought is no stranger to the peoples of East Africa,” said Klaus Toepfer, the Executive Director of UNEP, which has compiled a number of reports on the state of Kenya’s forests. “It is a natural climatic phenomenon. What has dramatically changed in recent decades is the ability of nature to supply essential services like water and moisture during hard times. This is because so much of nature’s water and rain-supplying services have been damaged, destroyed or cleared.

“These facts are especially poignant when you factor in the impact of climate change which is triggering more extreme weather events like droughts,” he added.

Rainfall over the past year has been poor and the recent rainy season of October to December 2005 has been dismal, according to the Kenyan Meteorological Services.

Schoolchildren are usually taught that clouds and precipitation are generated by evaporation from the oceans and the seas. The clouds, rising over hilly areas, then release this moisture as rain which falls onto the land and is returned to the sea via rivers and streams.

But Christian Lambrechts, an expert in UNEP’s Division of Early Warning and Assessment, said this commonly held belief tells only part of the story, hiding the vital role of vegetation such as forests in generating showers and rain.

“Globally, something like 62 per cent of precipitation occurs over land as a result of evapo-transpiration from lakes and wetlands and dense vegetation, in particular forests pumping water held in the soils, into the air. In comparison only around 38 per cent of precipitation is generated over oceans and seas,” he explained.

Mr. Toepfer urged countries in the region to invest in and rehabilitate their “natural or nature capital” in order to buffer vulnerable communities against future droughts.

He also urged donor countries to back such schemes as vital lynch pins for overcoming poverty and delivering sustainable and long-lasting economic development, while taking every possible measure to reduce the emissions of fossil fuels that are forcing up global temperatures.

“Without these combined actions, countries currently again facing water shortages and power rationing will continue to do so into the future with all the misery and economic damage this entails,” Mr. Toepfer warned.

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