Melting glaciers on East Africa's mountains a threat to ecosystems

Mt Kenya's rooftop captured on a clear morning from Amboseli National Park. [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

A sense of urgency has gripped the scientific community as reports indicate that the glaciers atop Rwenzori and Mt Kenya, two of East Africa's iconic mountain ranges, are rapidly disappearing.

The alarming findings suggest that these glaciers, which have already experienced significant shrinkage, are on track to vanish ahead of their projected timelines, with potentially devastating consequences for ecosystems, water resources, and the communities that depend on them.

Scientists at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) have warned that climate change has adversely affected the mountain ecosystem and that in a few decades, the ice on top of Rwenzori Mountains will be no more.

This confirms another warning from a report last October from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) that mountain glaciers in East Africa will disappear by the 2040s if the effects of climate change are not reversed.

Three mountains in Africa are covered by glaciers: Mt Kenya, Rwenzori in Uganda and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. However, the glaciers of all three are receding at a rapid pace.

The disappearance of these glaciers will have far-reaching impacts on both the local and regional scales. The Rwenzori and Mt Kenya glaciers are critical sources of freshwater, feeding into rivers and supplying water to downstream communities.

According to WMO, the loss of these glaciers will lead to reduced water availability, posing a significant threat to agriculture, hydropower generation, and the overall well-being of communities that rely on these resources.

Dr Simon Nyampindo, Executive Director at WCS, describes the loss of the glaciers as a physical manifestation of climate change in the continent.

"The rapid shrinking of the last remaining glaciers, which are expected to melt entirely in the near future, signals the threat of imminent and irreversible change to the Earth system," Dr Nyampindo said.

"The frequency of hot days has increased significantly, while that of cold days is decreasing. That is clear and strong evidence Uganda is experiencing effects of climate change," he added.

By 2030, up to 118 million people living on less than a dollar a day "will be exposed to drought, floods and extreme heat in Africa if adequate response measures are not put in place," reads the WMO Report in part.

Earth is losing ice faster today than in the mid-1990s, study suggests

Daniel Ndizihiwe, the Manager for Wildlife and Protected Areas at the WWF, Uganda Country Office, noted that East African countries are already struggling with disappearing glaciers and rising temperatures due to climate change.

"It's concerning for some communities that rely on seasonal melt from glaciers to feed rivers and irrigate crops," said Ndizihiwe.

Continued warming temperatures, sea-level rise, extreme weather and climate events like floods, landslides and droughts have had devastating impacts on the continent, he added.

"The glaciers support unique biodiversity, including rare plant species and specialised organisms adapted to the cold and ice. As the glaciers disappear, these ecosystems will face irreversible damage, potentially leading to the extinction of endemic species," warned Dr Ndizihiwe.

Local communities living near the Rwenzori and Mt Kenya mountains are already feeling the effects of the shrinking glaciers. Farmers, who depend on glacial meltwater for irrigation, have reported declining crop yields and increased water scarcity.

Linet Njoki, a farmer from the Mt Kenya region, shared her worries.

"In the past, we had reliable water sources from the glacier, but now we struggle to meet our irrigation needs. If the glacier disappears completely, our livelihoods will be at stake," lamented Njoki.

At the foot of Rwenzori in 2020 water came down the mountain carrying large boulders, sweeping away houses, and schools and destroying a better part of Kalembe town.

According to a Disaster Committee Interim Assessment Report, 24,760 houses and an estimated 173,000 people were affected.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted the role of human activities in driving the unprecedented warming of the planet.

The report warns that without immediate and significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the consequences of climate change will intensify, exacerbating the loss of glaciers and other fragile ecosystems.