Days after the blaze that engulfed a section of Mt Kilimanjaro in the evening of October 21 broke out, firefighters successfully contained it. Going by the current climate outlook, extreme weather events will become more frequent, of higher magnitude and more difficult to predict.
With such hindsight, it is reasonable to expect that fires on Kilimanjaro, which happen to coincide with dry spells, will be become more frequent and might even expand in scope. Even if events don’t quite plate out as predicted, such forecasts are important because they dampen the element of spontaneity, creating a window for advance preparation and the setting up of early warning systems.
That should result in better-planned and co-ordinated responses. With the changing climate patterns, it is safer to assume that the next alpine fire on Kilimanjaro will be bigger and require even more human and technical resources to put out.
Disturbing response aspects
While it all ended well, it should be a wakeup call. There are some disturbing aspects about the response that need to be addressed. Tanzania battled alone, using very basic resources to extinguish the fire. It took an army of men, supported by a lone helicopter that helped to douse the flames from the air. The aircraft is a pointer to evolution in the right direction, where technology should play a prominent frontline role in firefighting. Way beyond Kilimanjaro, the aggressive tree-planting campaigns in East Africa amplify the risk of future fires which should be matched by investment in the appropriate fire-fighting tools.
In the current economic setting, a squadron of firefighting aircraft is way beyond the capacity of a single EAC member state. It would also require establishing appropriate support infrastructure. With the relatively short flying distances in an otherwise expanding regional bloc, leaders should develop a sense of urgency about building such capabilities.
In natural forest management, fires are accepted as an inevitable element in the process of regeneration. They rid the forest of excess baggage, allowing the sprouting of the new. But in delicate and complex ecosystems such as Kilimanjaro, the loss of forest cover on a significant scale can have impacts far beyond the epicentre. The forest as a catchment consolidates moisture and, in combination with altitude, helps moderate climate over a large area.
So far, little is known about what has been causing the fires on Kilimanjaro, the ones preceding the latest episode having come only two years ago. While no direct link to human activity has been established, it is worth taking note of the fact that the population living on the mountain has multiplied a dozen fold over the past 100 years. Although there was no loss of life this time round, beyond natural biodiversity, the next episode could exact a heavy human toll. The mountain is also economically significant because of hiking and tourism within the park area.
Tanzania’s junior minister for environment Dr Suleiman Jaffo was right on the money when he called for comprehensive research to help understand the causes of the repeat fires. Kilimanjaro is not just a transboundary resource in which Tanzania’s neighbours have an interest but it is also globally significant. Yet, until cause and effect are established, Tanzania and all stakeholders in Kilimanjaro will be flying blind.