The woes of Kilimanjaro

The fabled glaciers on Tanzania's majestic mountain will soon be gone. Its forests are disappearing, too. For local farmers, this could mean disaster. For the rest of us, it's another unbearable loss on an overheating planet.

Topics: Africa, Global Warming,

The woes of Kilimanjaro

This is not the place William Kiwali remembers from when he was a child. A thin man with good posture and stained teeth, Kiwali gestures to the steep hillside below him, where rows of parched cornstalks lean at oblique angles, brown and shriveled under the equatorial sun. “Our corn is very dry now,” says Kiwali, “because the winter rains did not come.” This is the third year his community has gone without the crucial late-autumn rains. A generation ago, the area was characterized by reliable rain, thick fog and generous streams. “The rivers were full,” Kiwali says, and his family’s coffee, corn and bananas thrived. Now the rains are irregular, many streams run dry, and the corn, a staple food for Kiwali and his neighbors, doesn’t thrive as it once did.

Kiwali looks over his shoulder at the sleeping volcano, which looms more than 14,000 feet above his village of Kifuru Juu, just half a mile from the trekkers’ paradise of Kilimanjaro National Park. For over 250 years the legendary snows, rains and forests of Mount Kilimanjaro have sustained families living along the verdant slopes in the mountain’s rain shadow. Now, Kifuru Juu and hundreds of other communities that blanket the mountainside are suffering from the changes to their environment. “When I was little, there was a lot of snow on the mountain,” Kiwali says. “Now there’s not much snow and the water has dried out.”

Within the next 15 years, the glaciers atop Kilimanjaro are expected to disappear completely, and with them, some climate experts and government officials fear, a crucial portion of the region’s water supply. Over 1 million people who inhabit the lower reaches of Kilimanjaro, including Kiwali and his neighbors, depend on this water for their crops, livestock and domestic purposes. Conflicts over water shortages have already broken out between water users on the mountain, and some villages have been nearly cut off by their upstream neighbors. With declining precipitation levels driving glaciers toward extinction and threatening the area’s forests, scientists, environmental organizations and even the Tanzanian government are turning their attention to a complex set of questions: How will water resources, and the humans who depend on them, respond if the ice and trees disappear? What will happen as the world’s carbon levels continue to rise? For researchers and policymakers, the answers to these questions may be of academic interest or political concern, but for people like William Kiwali they are a matter of survival.

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Bouncing along a rutted dirt road lined with flat-topped acacia trees, renowned climatologist and Ohio State University professor Lonnie Thompson looks out of place in his chinos and running shoes. Thompson is internationally known for his ambitious expeditions to extract ice-core samples from some of the highest glaciers on earth, and for his no-nonsense talk about climate change. “The tropics are an extremely important area to understand for two basic reasons,” says Thompson. “For one, you’ve got 50 percent of the surface area of the planet in the tropics, and two, 70 percent of the earth’s 6.5 billion people live there. So you really need to understand natural climate variability in this area, as well as the human-induced changes that are taking place.”

Kilimanjaro’s glaciers have fascinated explorers and scientists for centuries, but only recently have scientists begun to take detailed, quantitative measurements of the glaciers’ retreat. This is Thompson’s third expedition to study Kilimanjaro’s glaciers in the last seven years. “This trip we’ll be spending about 20 days up there,” he says, lowering his head to get a better view of the ice-capped summit through the Land Cruiser’s dusty front windshield.

Located 200 miles south of the equator and rising more than 3 miles above the dry plains of northern Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro comprises three separate volcanoes. The tallest of the three, Kibo, stretches 19,340 feet above sea level and wears a crown of glaciers. When German geographer Hans Meyer made the first documented ascent of the peak in 1889, the glaciers dominated Kibo’s crest. Today, they cover less than 1 square mile, about a tenth the area they covered in Meyer’s time. Some glaciologists predict they will disappear entirely in the next 10 to 15 years, and Thompson says it could even happen sooner.

In 2002, Thompson and 10 of his colleagues published an article in the journal Science. The paper confirmed what many already knew: that Kilimanjaro’s famous cap of glacial ice is shrinking rapidly, with nearly 80 percent having disappeared between 1912 and 2000. What stunned readers, as well as the Tanzanian government, was that the article gave the glaciers an expiration date. Based on six ice cores drilled to bedrock and a comparison of aerial photos of the summit dating back to the early 20th century, Thompson and his colleagues concluded that “the disappearance of Kilimanjaro’s ice fields, expected between 2015 and 2020, will be unprecedented for the Holocene.” In other words, not since the birth of the glaciers almost 12 millennia ago have the glaciers been in danger of disappearing — until now.

Before the fabled snows of Kilimanjaro fade, glaciologists like Thompson are in a race against time to understand fully the glaciers’ response to climate change. On this trip, Thompson and his team of researchers will document changes to the summit glaciers and collect water samples from various points on the mountain, to determine how much glacial water is present at different elevations. “If you go back 100 years on this mountain,” says Thompson, pointing out the window at the broad-shouldered massif, “the whole summit was covered with glaciers. Since then, they’ve been retreating, and that water’s being discharged into the groundwater system. So it’s possible that a lot of water currently being consumed is older than 100 years, in which case the loss of the glaciers could have a very important impact on water supplies in this region.”

And the problem goes beyond Kilimanjaro. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-sponsored research group composed of thousands of international experts, warns that key forest-health factors like runoff and soil moisture will be adversely affected throughout Africa as a result of global warming.

It’s early afternoon, and the Land Cruiser ferrying Thompson’s group has climbed far above the savannah, through a wide swath of cultivated land and up into the park itself. Above the forest belt, giant purplish heathers reach out across the road to sweep the truck’s sides. Thompson and his team perk up as the cool mountain air moves over their flushed faces.

Julius Minja sits in the front seat of the Land Cruiser, chatting with the driver in Swahili as the vehicle jostles its way up the last section of road. Minja is one of the most experienced climbing guides on Kilimanjaro and has served as lead guide on all three of Lonnie Thompson’s expeditions. At 45 years old, he has visited the summit of the mountain over 800 times in a 15-year period, and witnessed drastic changes to the mountain’s ice fields. Now, he says, much of the ice has disappeared. “When people ask me about the changes on the glaciers,” Minja explains, “I can put a map there, and show them. Do you see the glacier [I ask them]? This glacier used to be there, but just the name is left, nothing more.”

Normally, monsoons create two periods of precipitation in this part of East Africa: the short rains, which arrive between mid-October and mid-December, and the long rains, which fall between mid-March and the end of June. Like Mount Rainier in Washington and Mount Shasta in California, Kilimanjaro acts as a rainmaker, gathering moisture into clouds around its base, and then wringing it onto its summit cones and steep slopes in the form of snow and rain. As the glaciers steadily retreat and the world’s temperatures warm, scientists are noticing that, at least for now, this rainmaking capacity appears to be decreasing.

Today the Kilimanjaro region, along with most of eastern Africa, is in the grip of a severe drought. International aid organizations warn of an impending large-scale famine, saying that the spring rains are doing little to alleviate an increasingly desperate situation. Periods of drought are common for this part of Africa, but local residents say this one seems different, and has prompted subtle but seemingly permanent changes to their way of life. Fireplaces now sit dormant in local homes, residents no longer wear sweaters even during the coldest months and dry spells last multiple years instead of just one.

For William Kiwali, these changes are most evident in his village’s irrigation ditches, which are now reduced, for the first time in his memory, to mere trickles. The ingenious system of furrowed waterways, which once carried water to farms up to 10 miles away, now reach nowhere near that far. Since the winter rains stopped coming, Kiwali says, the eight rivers and seven springs that normally feed this area are starting to dry up. About five years ago, according to Kiwali, people in his village of Kifuru Juu began to clash over water; some of the fights involved machetes. “This is not normal,” says Kiwali, shaking his head sadly. “People never used to do this, but five years ago they starting fighting over who gets water.”

Scientists and political leaders in Tanzania fear that the dwindling water supplies in places like Kifuru Juu will only get worse. The region’s declining precipitation is not only contributing to the glaciers’ demise, but is dramatically changing the forests as well. Some scientists say damage to the forests will have a more devastating impact on Kilimanjaro’s water than even the disappearance of the glaciers.

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“Shall we go into the forest?” asks Andreas Hemp, rolling up a large topographical map of the mountain in his spacious home office. Trim and energetic, Hemp is a German ecologist who has been studying the forests on Kilimanjaro for over a decade. This year, he is back to check on the dozens of rain and temperature gauges he has placed at various points on the mountain. Over time, Hemp has observed a decline not only in rainfall, but also in the forests’ ability to retain and percolate moisture into the soil. This climatic trend, he says, could have an enormous impact on the region’s water resources.

We load his once-white Nissan four-wheel drive and climb another 2,600 feet up a relatively smooth dirt track, past Old Moshi, the village where he rents a house next to a century-old Lutheran mission. Hemp looks admiringly at the neatly cultivated farms, much like those of Kiwali and his neighbors to the west. “It’s an agroforestry system,” he explains, which mimics the ecosystem of a forest with complementary layers of plants that keep the soil moist. Near the ground, they plant potatoes and beans, then coffee, bananas and finally trees. Only now, says Hemp, the farms are half the size they used to be. He blames population growth for the shrinking farms, as well as for contributing to the area’s declining water supplies.

We enter the forest preserve, a section of the forest set aside in 1921, a full 50 years before Kilimanjaro National Park was established. In the last 70 years, the mountain has lost nearly a third of its forest cover to fire and deforestation. In the preserve, people can offset the trend by planting pine trees and cypress for timber production. But the strip is not used properly, and too many young trees are being chopped down, says Hemp. “They should have properly paid forest officers, but they don’t, so the forest officers have to earn extra money and they sell the trees and timber of the forest.” Illegal logging is rampant all over the mountain, and, along with human-triggered fires, has contributed to the deforestation on Kilimanjaro. “It’s a general problem in Tanzania,” he explains, shrugging his shoulders. “The salaries are so low, no one can live on them.” This February, in an attempt to prevent further deforestation, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete placed a ban on cutting trees and harvesting timber in the forest preserve.

Hemp attributes the increasingly harmful effects of fires and logging to a drier climate; the region’s precipitation levels have been declining for the last 100 years. “Without this dry climate, the fires would be much smaller and not so disastrous as they are now,” he says. Hemp’s main concern, however, is how the loss of forest cover could contribute to the decimation of the mountain’s biggest source of fresh water. In a process called “fog-stripping,” large, leafy trees in the upper mountain capture water vapor and funnel it in the form of droplets down to the forest floor. But when large chunks of forests are lost, there are fewer trees to milk water from the air, which, Hemp believes, could cause local water levels to plummet.

According to Hemp’s rain gauges, the annual loss of fog water roughly equals the yearly water needs of the entire population living on Kilimanjaro. In fact, the combined fog-water and rain yield for the upper forest belt is about 500 times the volume of the glacier runoff, so Hemp doubts that the glaciers contribute significantly to Kilimanjaro’s water resources. And if increasing population, declining precipitation and deforestation continue to plague the area, Hemp believes Kilimanjaro may lose all its high-altitude forests at the same time its glaciers disappear. “It’s a parallel trend,” he says.

This prediction has Jacob Mushi, a retired forest officer who grew up on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, extremely worried about food security. Drought will put additional pressure on all the forests, he says, on the savannah as well as the mountain’s upper elevations. As formerly reliable water sources dry up, agriculturalists across the Kilimanjaro region are at the mercy of the rains. “When food is scarce and it’s the dry season, more people move into the forests to look for food,” explains Mushi. “Without the trees,” he says, “the water level really goes farther down. Forests are necessary for water conservation.” The vicious feedback loop Mushi describes is already being played out in at least one community.

Like many of her neighbors, Rispaeli Jonas goes into the forest to chop down the trees. She worries that this practice is contributing to the drought, but she doesn’t have much choice. “For three years, we haven’t gotten any rain to grow food, so when the dry season comes, people just go to the forest to chop down the trees and make charcoal to buy food. Maybe the drought was caused by the forest being chopped down? I don’t know.”

Jonas lives in the small village of Mwangaria, on the dry savannah below Kilimanjaro. To get there, one must travel rough, dusty roads past large plantations of sugar cane and rice framed by graceful acacia trees. Closer to the village, the trees thin, leaving large patches of dry, brown grass to sizzle in the hot sun. Most of the houses here are made of thin pieces of wood chinked with brown mud.

It’s late afternoon, and Jonas is sitting with a group of older women in the shade of a small stand of trees. Her hair is plaited in cornrows straight back on her head. She wears a multicolored kanga, a traditional African wrap skirt, below a black T-shirt. On her farm, Jonas grows beans and corn. “We planted for the short rains, but it was very little, and the seeds did not grow.” Now, she says, they are preparing to plant for the long rains, which traditionally begin in March, but they are not sure if they can count on them.

Farmers in Mwangaria did not always rely on the rain. “For now, we don’t have any place to get water for our crops because it was taken away,” says Mwangaria’s chairman, Rhamadhani Mdoe, in rapid-fire Swahili. Beginning in the late ’70s, Mdoe says, a Japanese-owned rice plantation bought the water rights to the Rau River and began diverting it away from Mwangaria and into their paddies. Within a few years the village no longer had enough water for the people of Mwangaria to water their crops. To compensate, the villagers cut their own ditch to a spring over 7 miles away, but the ditch was poorly engineered and the water didn’t reach Mwangaria. Aside from a few shallow wells that locals say make them sick with amoebas, typhoid and diarrhea, locals rely on one working water pump, which the Red Cross installed in the late ’90s. But it is not enough water for their crops.

“All we count on is rain. After they cut down the Rau River, and we couldn’t get water from our ditch, our people really began to suffer,” Mdoe says.

When she was young, Jonas says, there weren’t droughts like this one. “We didn’t go hungry when I was a young girl. Now there’s too much sun, it’s too hot and people are going hungry.” When her children ask what they are going to do, she tells them, “We are just going to have to live this way. I think Jesus says we have to live this way and pray.”

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As water resources dwindle, Mwangaria’s plight is being repeated in many downstream communities. And anecdotal reports from Kilimanjaro’s arid north side, near the Kenyan border, suggest that many villages there are being hit even harder by the prolonged drought. Frinmene Massawe, a schoolteacher from Rombo, on Kilimanjaro’s northeastern side, says that “In Rombo, it can take people six hours to go and find water for drinking.” In response, the Tanzanian Ministry of Water and several non-governmental organizations have joined together in a conservation project that could help people prepare for a drier, less predictable future.

“Climate change is a global issue,” says Sylvand Kamugisha, the coordinator for the new initiative, called the Pangani River Basin Management Project. “So what is happening outside of Tanzania has an impact on our environment and the rains that trickle down to the basin. According to our records, our rivers are not flowing as they used to be.”

“One of our big messages in this project is we’re not just in a period of a few bad years,” says Kelly West, an American scientist with the World Conservation Organization, which is helping to fund the new initiative. “People are still in the mentality, we’re just having a bad year, but we’re not going to have the rains they remember from their childhood again. Climate change is happening and people need to change the way they use water.”

The project, which is expected to take two more years, targets several key weaknesses in the government’s ability to regulate and conserve water. The goals include maintaining accurate data on available water and allocating it to users via a fee-based system. To avoid future conflicts over water, they hope to involve small water users in formulating water policy, and educate people to view water as a part of a larger ecosystem sensitive to climate change and local human activities. But while adaptive measures like these will help local communities manage their dwindling resources, area residents may have to make major adjustments to cope with diminished water levels.

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Neil Baker, a British expatriate and longtime Tanzanian resident, has spent years dealing with Kilimanjaro’s water as part of his work as an engineer. “I came here to build power stations, and then I got involved in water, selling water pumps and installing water projects,” he says. Until recently, he was also a farmer on Kilimanjaro. A wiry man with brilliant blue eyes, Baker struggles to sit still before his cup of tea. It’s late afternoon outside a hotel in Moshi, a small city on the south side of the mountain.

In the late 1990s, after careful research on water rights and production yields, Baker and his wife, Liz, purchased a coffee plantation on Mount Kilimanjaro’s southwest flank. In their second year on the farm, the short rains failed and the Bakers ran out of water in February of 2000 despite owning two water rights. The next year was better, but 2002 was dry again and they lost 11,000 seedlings. To make matters worse, the price of coffee collapsed, so the Bakers switched to growing sugar snap peas and baby carrots for a European market. Though they knew these crops required a lot of water and were sensitive to warm temperatures, the Bakers figured they’d be all right. According to historical records from the farm going back nearly 50 years, May-September would be cold enough for a good crop. “But it just didn’t happen,” says Baker. “The temperatures we were recording were considerably higher that year.” Shortly thereafter, the Bakers gave up and sold their farm.

Baker’s tanned face tightens with the memory of losing his farm, but he knows he’s lucky. He was able to pull out and move on — not an option shared by people like Kiwali or Jonas, or even, perhaps, for Baker’s own grandchildren. Still, Baker says, the ultimate impact climate change will have on Mount Kilimanjaro and its people remains unclear.

“I don’t know. Does anybody know at this stage? Apart from the White House, everybody agrees there’s a problem. But measuring it, quantifying it, proving it. Perhaps in 30 years’ time, someone’s going to look back and say, yeah, look at all this data. Where are we going to be in 30 years’ time? I’ve got three grandchildren right now, and they’re going to be having their own children. So my great-grandchildren are going to be primary school kids and this mountain is going to be … can I swear? It’s going to be fucked. It’s well on its way.”

Read other articles in the Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet directory.

Kate Cheney Davidson is a freelance journalist. This story was reported in a joint production of Salon, NPRs Living on Earth and U.C. Berkeleys Graduate School of Journalism.

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