Mount Rwenzori is fast losing its appeal. The beautiful white ice glaciers that have long attracted tourists and nature lovers are being replaced with vegetation.
“Plant species near the glaciers have advanced as the latter has retreated. Rapid glacier retreat generally leads to a succession of vegetation and causes subtle but serious ecological changes,” says a new study done by global environmental NGO Green Cross International, Makerere University Mountain Research Centre and Rwenzori Trekkers.
The study, Glacier Retreat and Implications for the Ecosystem on Mount Rwenzori, found that the area covered by glaciers has declined from 7.5 square kilometres to less than a square kilometre between 1906 and 2003. The main cause is attributed to warming atmospheric temperatures and reduced precipitation.
In East Africa, glaciers sit atop the volcanic mountains of Mount Kenya, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and the Rwenzori range in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Glaciers are sources of the planet’s freshwater; they store and release it seasonally, replenishing the rivers and ground waters.
“A decline in the glaciers will impact agriculture, domestic water supplies, hydroelectricity and industry in the lowlands and cities far from the mountains,” the study warns.
Recent floods in Kasese in western Uganda are examples of disasters that are directly associated with the melting glaciers on the Rwenzori. The Kasese floods destroyed river banks, roads, buildings, hospitals, killed people and damaged the surrounding ecosystem.
The most effects will be felt by an estimated two million people residing on the foothills of the mountain and those surrounding the Rwenzori Mountain National Park in western Uganda and DRC.
To mitigate the impacts, environmentalists are implementing a Sustainable Financing of the Rwenzori Mountains National Park project (SFRMNP), at a cost of €2.1 million ($2.26 million) provided mainly by the European Union and the French Global Environment Facility.
A financial contribution from private partners is also expected. The project will be implemented in three-and-a-half years.
“SFRMNP aims to achieve effective conservation of the Rwenzori mountains by developing a sustainable financing mechanism that realises the potential of the natural resource and engages the private sector,” said WWF country director David Duli.
The project also intends to contribute to improved incomes and reduce poverty among poor people living on the foothills of the Rwenzori, by engaging them in managing the natural resource. For example, it plans to develop tourism products derived from the park and other nature-based enterprises.
The local financial mobilisation is in line with government’s plan to lobby for additional funds from the international community during the United Nations Framework on Climate Change Conference (COP21) late this year, to help it combat impacts of climate change.
“We are discussing how Uganda will benefit from the meeting. We are seeking international money from the global climate fund to address some of the adaption challenges,” said Dr Tom Okurut, executive director of the National Environment Management Authority.