African Mountain Research Times - February 2018

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AfroMont, an online knowledge-sharing platform, was initiated in 2007 by the Mountain Research Initiative (MRI) in Switzerland to focus attention on the diverse issues and challenges facing the mountainous regions of Africa. The specific aim of Afromont is to showcase experiences from research, field projects and best practice in sustainable mountain development and climate change adaptation in African countries, which may be useful or implemented in other countries in the continent.  

A new thrust for 2018 will be to engage with African media to support the investigative reporting of a wide range of climate change, social, ecological and sustainable development issues in Africa as they relate to mountains.

AfroMont now has a Facebook page, see

Photo credit: December in the Central Berg area of the Drakensberg, South Africa (SJ Taylor)


Mountains under Pressure, Climate, Hunger, Migration: The fifth global meeting of the Mountain Partnership, 11–13th December 2017, Rome, Italy

With Big SamThe fifth international meeting of the Mountain Partnership was held at UN FAO headquarters in Rome during December 2017 and brought together representatives from the 177 Mountain partnership members Italy, under the theme ‘Mountains under pressure: climate, hunger, migration’.

Africa was represented by Dr Sam Kanyamibwa of ARCOS (Albertine Rift Conservation Society) (left) based in Kampala, Uganda, while Macpherson Nthara (right), Chief Land Resources Conservation Officer, represented Malawi. Macpherson is also the Focal Point for the Mountain Partnership for Malawi. Other African delegates were from Lesotho, Cameroon, the DRC and Guinea, and sadly no one from South Africa or Ethiopia, Kenya or Tanzania. Notably, a vote was taken at the meeting, and Uganda now represents Africa on the Mountain Partnership Steering Committee.

Coinciding with International Mountain Day and the 15th anniversary of the Mountain Partnership, the December 2017 Mountain Partnership Global Meeting brought together high-level representatives from mountainous countries, goodwill ambassadors and representatives of intergovernmental organizations, the private sector and civil society, in addition to Mountain Partnership members, to raise awareness of the need to place mountain ecosystems and peoples at the centre of international negotiations, policies and investments.Int mountain day

Almost one billion people live in mountain areas around the world and over half the human population depends on mountains for water, food and clean energy. Yet mountains are under threat from climate change, land degradation and natural disasters, with potentially far-reaching and devastating consequences both for mountain communities and the rest of the world. The extreme vulnerability of mountains puts their natural resources under increasing pressure, which in turn affects mountain peoples, exacerbating hunger, poverty and forcing migration. Despite clear evidence of their importance and vulnerability, mountains continue to be marginalized in international negotiations and national policy-making efforts.

The meeting was organized jointly by the World Mountain Partnership Secretariat, the UN FAO and the Government of Italy and was aimed at placing the sustainability and resilience of mountain ecosystems and communities at the centre of international processes, policies and investments linked to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as manifested through the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDG). A Framework for Action to support concrete actions, put in place long-lasting processes and establish policies that strengthen the resilience of mountain peoples and environments was launched on the first day of the meeting and endorsed by governments and civil society. Participants heard high-level statements by founding members of the Mountain Partnership. The programme continued with the identifying of work priorities for the next four years, organized around the Mountain Partnership’s functions of advocacy, capacity development, joint action and communication. A Governance Paper, Advocacy Strategy and Communication Strategy were discussed and endorsed by members.

The World Mountain Partnership is an international, voluntary alliance dedicated to improving the lives of mountain people and protecting their environments around the world. Launched at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the Mountain Partnership hopes to promote results based collaboration, projects and information exchange on mountain issues at the national, regional and global levels. It is a mechanism for networking and advocacy to support the cause of sustainable mountain development in relevant international processes and United Nations Conventions. Sustainable Mountain Development (SMD) is a key goal of the World Mountain Partnerships, and one of the successes of the WMP in support of SMD has been the inclusion of mountains in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Malawi Chapter of the Mountain Partnership (MCMP)

Malawi is taking the lead in Africa by drafting a National Mountain Strategy and setting up a Secretariat for the Malawi Chapter of the Mountain Partnership, with a target of June 2018 for the development of both the Strategy and the Chapter secretariat. Key to the success of this initiative will be identifying financial resources with various development partners. Macpherson Nthara, the coordinator for the Malawi Chapter, says that the Malawi Chapter of the Mountain Partnership (MCMP) will initially focus on the urgent need to raise awareness about the challenges of land degradation in highlands and mountain environments in that country. The Malawi Chapter’s secretariat will carry out communication and knowledge management activities to ensure the delivery of consistent messages, data and recommendations. Macpherson also states that, in order to strategically utilize and share the latest information available about the state of the country’s mountains communities and ecosystems, the MCMP will carry out a number of outreach activities, and develop databases, publications, brochures, newsletters and policy briefs to increase awareness, deepen understanding and inspire concrete policy action on Sustainable Mountain Development (SMD). Macpherson also says that the global adoption of the UN SDGs offers an opportunity for increased focus on mountains. However, for this to happen, a national strategy on Mountains in each African country is required. Goals, targets and indicators must be set to improve the livelihoods of mountain people and to conserve mountain ecosystems for the sustained prosperity of the present and future generations.

Mountain part

The Mountain Partnership - Check out interesting conferences, events and publications by the Mountain Partnership


Editorial - Blame it on the Colonials!

Many people who visit the mountains might not know that they have changed from the way they used to be. They might think the landscape always looked the way it does now – usually less diverse in plant and animal species, or devoid of trees. People often do not know ‘that there used to be forests here’. That is why it is important to monitor landscape change, something that we mountain researchers are always trying to do. Climate change is making this much more urgent – but it is not only climate change that is altering landscapes.

Drakensberg amphitheatre and Tugela River. Image sourced from

Some of the adverse changes have been underway for some time, being one of those slow onset disasters that scientists warn about for decades, but no-one listens. For example, when I was growing up, we used to holiday in the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa. It is not like we stayed in expensive hotels (there were few of those back then) and we had an old army tent and cooked on an open fire. My father, an artist, would wander off to paint many views of the spectacular Drakensberg Amphitheatre (similar to the above photo), while we pottered about in cool mossy glades and visited Bushman caves to admire the delicate paintings. One could always look to the distance and there was the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, a massive wall of rock rising 1000 m out of the Drakensberg foothills and separating South Africa from Lesotho. The Amphitheatre is a vital source of water for South Africa, and if you look at the Amphitheatre rock face carefully, you can spot the Tugela Falls, a waterfall draining down the cliff face from high altitude Mont-Aux-Sources wetlands within Lesotho. The Tugela Falls drops 947 meters down the rock-face of the Amphitheatre in three separate waterfalls, is said to be the highest waterfall in the world, and is the source of the crystal clear Tugela (Thukela) River that flows along the valley floor to the Indian Ocean some distance away.

While the waterfall and initial upper reaches of the Tugela River are still cold and clear, the rest of the Tugela River is muddy brown. The photos I took in December 2017 show a point where the river is well on its way towards the Woodstock Dam, the first dam to intercept the river flow along its way to the sea, and is already carrying a fine load of soil from the local landscape.







 This Christmas we stayed at the Cavern Drakensberg Resort near the famed Drakensberg Amphitheatre. And fortunately, I do remember what this area used to look like. We could not help noticing that the hills in this area of the Drakensberg look very ‘threadbare’ and ‘tired’ looking, with much of the bare earth visible. Looking around, one can many areas where there is very little vegetation cover and over time, these hillsides will erode.

drakensberg4We asked the long time resort owner, Mr Paul Carte, how long the Tugela River had been muddy and brown. Clearly, this was a sore point for him.
“Blame it on the Colonials!” he said vehemently. He then told us for the last 150 years, white cattle farmers farmed their herds in the fragile foothills of the Drakensberg and began a process of land degradation that has become a crisis today. Even Paul Carte’s own father was originally a cattle farmer in the Drakensberg until he realised that the grassland was not suitable for cattle and instead started the Cavern Guest Farm, a tourism venture. In more recent times, this landscape is farmed by poor, tribal cattle farmers and while the landscape degradation continues, they are not entirely to blame for the poor state of the landscape. The damage was done long ago, says Paul Carte. The land degradation problem in the area seems intractable, for various very real reasons, notably poverty and too many farmers on too little land. There is work being done with local communities and farmers to teach them to rehabilitate damaged slopes and gulley and stop further soil erosion in the foothills, but it is very difficult work for various reasons, not to mention that it takes years to reverse damage that took decades to create.

drakensberg5Another more contemporary and complicating aspect of the ongoing land degradation is stock theft. Paul Carte explained that today, no farmer can leave his herds out in the hills overnight because they will have vanished by the morning! To protect their herds, farmers move hundreds of animals up and down the hillsides on a daily basis and over time, many paths are carved out of the hills in the process. These become channels for water during the rains and eventually deep erosion scars form. All the soil that is washed away ends up in the rivers and then in the dams. The Woodstock Dam, the first dam downstream of the Drakensberg Amphitheatre, is in immediate danger of silting up because of soil erosion. The Woodstock Dam is part of a series of dams (the Driekloof Dam joined to the Sterkfontein Dam, the Kilburn Dam, the Woodstock Dam and the Driel Barrage), and they all receive water from the Drakensberg Escarpment via the Tugela River. Importantly, they are part of the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme.

There have been notable studies on the challenge, along with research on the rather dire siltation problem for the Woodstock Dam. Reservoir sedimentation is dependent on catchment sediment yield, which is a function of catchment location and size, as well as sediment yield potential within the catchment. Based on the estimated catchment sediment yield and reservoir trap efficiency, the loss in reservoir storage can be readily determined, says Le Grange (2013). For the Woodstock dam, the dam is becoming a very good sediment trap with a major loss in water volume.

The Tugela-Vaal pumped storage scheme

The Woodstock dam is not just about water for a few small towns and farms. It is part of a national strategic system to supply electricity to the national electricity grid, as well as water to the industrial heartland of South Africa, Gauteng province. An Eskom reports explains how, on one side of the watershed, the Tugela River carries its waters almost unused to the Indian Ocean, while on the other side of the watershed, the Vaal River flows towards the Atlantic and is exploited to the utmost. In the early 1970s, water planners realised that water demands would escalate and create problems of future water supply for industry, commerce and domestic use in the Gauteng area. The solution was an ambitious plan to transfer water from the catchment area of the Tugela to that of the Vaal, taking the water over the Drakensberg through reservoirs, channels and pumps. At the same time, the construction plans opened an opportunity to build a hydroelectric power station to exploit the potential of the pumped water resources. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) and Eskom (South African Electricity Supply Commission) started work on this dual-purpose scheme in 1974 and in 1982 the project was completed, operating as a pumped storage scheme and as a pumping station for water transfer over the Drakensberg from the Tugela to the Vaal. Most of the complex was constructed underground and the surface buildings and access roads were built in such a way that they can hardly be seen, and as a result, the beautiful natural surroundings appear virtually untouched (this is in the days before the requirement of Environmental Impact Assessments). Now the system is silting up!

Le Grange A du P (2013). The uMkhomazi Water Project. Phase 1: Module 1: Technical Feasibility Study Raw Water. WATER RESOURCES YIELD ASSESSMENT REPORT SUPPORTING DOCUMENT 1: SEDIMENT YIELD REPORT. 2013.
Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme. Eskom archive document.

madaboutlichensMad about lichens
It seems that South Africa has very few geo-referenced collections of lichens collected from the mountains (or anywhere) – an opportunity for interesting and important research. This photo I took in the Drakensberg shows an (unidentified) crustose lichen that appears to be infested with an (unidentified) lichenicolous fungus (the black blobs that are parasitic on the bigger white blobs, which are the host lichen). As you can see, I need taxonomic assistance - help!

Editor’s Choice - Featured publication

Drivers and trajectories of land cover change in East Africa: Human and environmental interactions from 6000 years ago to present. Marchant R et al (2017). Earth-Science Reviews. Available online 6 January 2018.
Abstract - East African landscapes today are the result of the cumulative effects of climate and land-use change over millennial timescales. In this review, we compile archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data from East Africa to document land cover change, environmental, subsistence and land use transitions over the past 6000 years. Throughout East Africa there have been a series of relatively rapid and high magnitude environmental shifts characterised by changing hydrological budgets during the Holocene. For example, pronounced environmental shifts that manifested as a marked change in the rainfall or seasonality and subsequent hydrological budget throughout East Africa occurred around 4000, 800 and 300 radiocarbon years before present (yr BP).
The past 6000 years have also seen numerous shifts in human interactions with East African ecologies. From the mid Holocene, anthropogenic land use has both diversified and increased exponentially associated with the arrival of new subsistence systems, crops, migrants and technologies, giving rise to a sequence of significant phases of land cover change. The first large scale human influences began to occur around 4000 yr BP, associated with the introduction of domesticated livestock and the expansion of pastoral communities. The first widespread and intensive forest clearances were associated with the arrival of iron-using early farming communities around 2500 yr BP, particularly in productive and easy to clear mid-altitudinal areas. Extensive and pervasive land cover change has been associated with population growth, immigration and movement of people. The expansion of trading routes between the interior and the coast starting around 1300 yr BP and intensifying in the 18th and 19th centuries, was one such process. These caravan routes possibly acted as conduits for spreading New World crops such as maize (Zea mays), tobacco and tomatoes, although the processes and timing of their introduction remains poorly documented. The introduction of SE Asian domesticates, especially banana, rice, taro, and chicken, via transoceanic biological transfers around and across the Indian Ocean, from at least around 1300 yr BP, and potentially significantly earlier, also had profound social and ecological consequences across parts of the region.
Through an interdisciplinary synthesis of information, we explore the different drivers and directions of land cover change, the associated environmental history and multiple interactions with the distribution of various cultures, technologies, and subsistence strategies through time and across space in East Africa. This review suggests topics for targeted future research that focus on areas and/or time periods where our understanding of the interaction between people, the environment and land cover change are most contentious and/or poorly resolved. The review also critiques how this perspective on regional land use change can be used to inform and provide perspective for contemporary issues such as climate and ecosystem change models, conservation and the achievement of nature based solutions to development.