Vanishing lakes prove impact of man

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A GENERATION ago it was a vast deep blue sea teeming with life. Now the Aral Sea is sick and green and a fraction of the size it once was.

What was once a living mass of water brimming with fish providing a living for the thriving fishing villages on its shores is now, 40 years later, a slimy dark green mess suffocated by pollution and vast swathes of salt mountains.

These images, from the latest edition of one of the world's most authoritative atlases, show the stark changes global warming and mankind have wrought on the face of the planet.

Across the world, map makers are having to redraw coastlines, reduce the size of seas and lakes and reclassify types of land to keep up with the rapid changes transforming our planet.

Lake Chad in Africa has shrunk by 95 per cent since 1963; Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa has lost more than 80 per cent of its ice cap in the past 100 years; Bangladesh is particularly susceptible to heavier rains and rising sea waters as a result of climate change, with land disappearing into the ocean.

The Dead Sea is some 25 metres lower than it was 50 years ago and sections of rivers including the Rio Grande and Colorado in America, the Tigris in the Middle East and the Yellow River in China are now drying out each summer.

In human terms, the damage has left children from the shrinking fishing villages fringing the Aral Sea playing in vast seabed "ship cemeteries" oblivious to the diseases rife around them.

Tuberculosis, cancers and infant mortality are 30 times higher than before because the remaining drinking water is badly polluted. New industries using fertilisers and pesticides dump their effluents into the water oblivious to the effects on people and wildlife.

The sea has shrunk as the result of a decision by the former Soviet Union to divert the Ama Dariya and the Syrdariya rivers, which fed the huge inland saltwater lake, to grow cotton in the desert.

Another area of concern is Lake Chad, which was once one of the African continent's largest bodies of fresh water but which could be reduced to a mere pond in a decade or two.

As recently as the mid-1960s, Lake Chad, which sits between Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger, was a huge expanse of water that the locals fondly referred to as an "ocean".

It covered 25,000 square miles of water yielding 230,000 tonnes of fish a year but is now reduced to 500 square miles, with the fish catch reduced to 50,000 tonnes.

Bago, which was once a thriving waterfront town, is stranded many miles from the lake as the "desertification" of the area marches on.

Fishermen, who previously earned up to 60 a day, now earn only 3 and are trying to use the dark loamy soil left behind by the receding water to grow onions, tomatoes, maize and pepper to feed their families.

They are forced to travel overland to reach the lake but once there find themselves caught up in bitter territorial disputes with fishermen from neighbouring territories claiming long-established legal rights to fish in that particular part of the lake.

The Central African Republic's Logone and Chari rivers empty into the lake. But lower rainfall - locals say it has reduced steadily from five to 10mm year - and damming of the rivers for hydro-electric schemes means that only half of the water now gets there.

Jacob Nyanganji, of the University of Maiduguri in Nigeria, said there was growing anger about the effects of global warming: "Africa is being cheated again by the industrialised West.

"Africa does not produce any significant amount of greenhouse gases, but it's our lakes and rivers that are drying up. America has refused to ratify Kyoto and it is our lakes that are drying up."

Mick Ashworth, editor in chief of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, said: "We can literally see environmental disasters unfolding before our eyes. We have a real fear that in the near future famous geographical features will disappear forever.

"We have been publishing the map since 1895 so we have a wonderful archive of how the appearance of our planet has changed in the last hundred years, or more.

"Of the main changes we've been noticing over the last few years, the most evident is the Aral Sea which has shrunk 75 per cent in the last 40 years. Lake Chad is shrinking and the Dead Sea level is falling.

"There are also more obscure things. The Yellow River in China sometimes fails to reach the sea, which makes the coastline change.

"The outlines of places are changing, like Bangladesh. Sea levels are rising about 3mm a year, which has strange effects on the coastline."

The atlas has had to take into account the rapid changes in some of the world's best-known rivers.

There are fears that some places, particularly low-lying Pacific islands such as Tuvalu, could disappear from the map in the coming years as rising sea levels turn their populations into "climate refugees".

The map took four years to make, with changes to the database made every three and a half minutes using a round-the-clock news feed to more than 50 cartographers.

Computer models suggest the Arctic could be ice-free in late summer by the latter part of this century. And heatwaves, extreme rainfall and flash floods are expected to increase, posing threats to health and ecosystems.

The atlas also shows how global warming is creating modern day "ghost towns" with natural disasters and human conflict destroying livelihoods.

The village of Shishmaref in Alaska is tipped to become the first US community to have to move due to climate change as sea ice shrinks after a temperature rise of 4.4C in 30 years.

On a positive note, the atlas reveals that 13 per cent of the world's land area is designated as protected and large areas of the Mesopotamian marshlands in Iraq, which were drained by Saddam Hussein, are now being re-flooded.

But it also says that 40 per cent of known coral reefs have been destroyed or degraded and more than 1 per cent of tropical rainforest is cleared each year - potentially hastening climate change.

• NEARLY two-thirds of the public believe ministers are using environmental fears as an excuse to raise tax revenue, according to a new poll.

Research suggests the cynicism is justified - with green taxes bringing in 10 billion more for the Treasury than it would cost to offset the entire UK's carbon footprint.

The figures are contained in a dossier compiled by pressure group the TaxPayers' Alliance (TPA).

A YouGov survey for the TPA found only a fifth of people thought politicians were genuinely trying to change behaviours using the tax system, while 63 per cent believed they were using the issue as an excuse to pull in more cash.

Nearly four-fifths voiced opposition to the government's so-called "pay-as-you-throw" schemes to encourage recycling.

Some 60 per cent said fuel duty was an unfair tax, while 45 per cent thought the same about air-passenger duty - which was recently doubled by the government. Opinion was evenly split over whether people approved, in principle, of extra "green" charges on motoring and air travel - with 46 per cent saying they did not and 45 per cent saying they did.

Using previous international climate-change research, the report estimated that covering the social cost of carbon emissions would have cost 11.7 billion in 2005. But receipts from "green" taxes such as fuel duty, road tax and the Climate Change Levy totalled 21.9 billion. On average, every UK household paid 400 more in levies than it cost to cover their own footprint, the TPA said

Matthew Elliott, TPA chief executive, said:

"Politicians have been using green taxes as a revenue-raising measure and are trying to win support for new ones by exploiting concern about climate change. We need more honesty about the costs of extra green taxes when British taxpayers already pay some of the world's highest pollution charges."