A particularly vulnerable region in East Africa relies on a balance of resources from the environment of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  The mountain rises up almost 6,000 meters high and is the center of its own ecosystem; vegetation climbs to eventually meet glacier ice as snow melt flows back down and into the surrounding rivers (Hemp, 2009).  These rivers provide water to millions of individuals living in agricultural and pastoral communities.  The harsh reality following a global rise in temperature yields the loss of a significant amount of glacial cover on Kilimanjaro.  Other seen changes are a decrease in precipitation and air humidity, as well as an increase in forest fires along the mountain's slope (Hemp, 2009).

Kilimanjaro region

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Base environment around Kilimanjaro

Image by: Oliveah Sears


Increase in Temperature

Projected trends expect temperatures to rise rapidly in Africa, surpassing the global rate of temperature increase in the next century.  Changes in annual minimum and maximum temperatures have affected seasonal distribution across the continent (IPCC, 2014).  Especially within tropical regions, projected climates will experience temperature rise to occur one to two decades earlier because of the narrowed variability in these small climate systems (IPCC, 2014).  Proximity to the ocean increases Kilimanjaro’s sensitivity to air temperature as well as sea surface temperatures in association to moisture availability as the altitude increases along the mountain (Molg et al., 2008).

Decrease in Precipitation

Regions in northern Africa have experienced a consistent decrease in rainfall.  An observed record rainfall showed 330 dry days with less than 1 mm of rainfall per day over an eleven-year span from 1997-2008 (IPCC, 2014).  As measured in the previous 120 years, annual rainfall on Mount Kilimanjaro has decreased by 600-1200 mm as temperatures have increased drastically and simultaneously to the decline of precipitation (Hemp, 2009).  Rainfall in this region has decreased as a result of proximity to the warming Indian Ocean (IPCC, 2014).  These alterations in climate have not only impacted the presence of mountain glaciers, causing drastic retreat, but has also amplified possibilities of forest fires.

Elephants in neighboring Amboseli National Park

Image by: Matthew Boscow

Trends in average precipitation and temperature

Kahsay and Hansen, 2016

Exposure and Vulnerability

  • Drought
  • Agriculture
  • Forest fires
  • Water scarcity

Drought and Agriculture

Ecosystems and communities surrounding Mount Kilimanjaro are especially sensitive to events brought forth by climate change.  This region consists of a critical ecosystem and is a biodiversity hotspot.  It is also a primary source of freshwater for surrounding communities (Agrawala et al., 2003).  Production of crops is dependent upon rain cycles and the systemic changing of seasons. Without the ability to predict when planning yearly crop distribution, agriculturalists are unable to ensure success.  The rotation of droughts and floods limit both agriculturalists and pastoralists with impacts on crops as well as livestock (Hemp, 2009).  Temperature increase in combination with a decrease in precipitation has enhanced the intensity and risk of forest fires, impacting the water catchment abilities of the forests and in turn, leading to water scarcity (Agrawala et al., 2003). 

Active farmland

Image by: Oliveah Sears

Along the base of Kilimanjaro, similar to most of the land in East Africa, communities are highly dependent on agriculture. Rain-fed, small-scale production provides for the family as well as a source of income for the household, approximately 80% of primary income for East Africans (Kahsay & Hansen, 2016). These farms are more susceptible to negative impacts of climate change. Farmers follow specific seasonal patterns and dictate crop distribution based on precipitation rates and patterns (Kahsay & Hansen, 2016). However, without watershed from forests or seasonal glacier melt, access to water becomes scarce. Stressors on water accessibility impacts crop production, income, access to food, health and overall livelihood of the established communities surrounding Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Forest Fires and Water Scarcity

Forest fires have caused the deterioration of the fog intercepting subalpine forest belt by low lying shrub, which has actively impacted the hydrological balance of the mountain.  Fog intercepting cloud forests plays an integral role in the water catchment system (Agrawala et al., 2003).  The forests that line Kilimanjaro are functioning cloud forests and are a necessity to the cycle of watershed for surrounding communities.  There are two distinct rainy seasons on Kilimanjaro, long rains occur from March to May and short rain events happen in November (Hemp, 2009). In this seasonally dry, tropical climate, water scarcity has haunted its inhabitants.  During the last 70 years, Kilimanjaro has lost one-third of its forests.  These covered areas have been cleared by forest fires. Kilimanjaro’s forests exceeding 1300 meters above sea level obtain 1600 million cubic meters of water annually, 95% of this water produced in rainfall, and 5% by fog interception (Hemp, 2009).  Of this retained water, about 500 million cubic meters (31%) infiltrates into the groundwater or into streams (Hemp, 2009).  If fires destroy these forests, that accounts to a loss of about 20 million cubic meters of fog water accumulation per year (Hemp, 2009).  These forests act as a filter and store precipitated water as well as collect cloud water. In an interconnected cycle, deforestation along the base of the mountain results in the gradual shrinking of the cloud zone, an impact to the part of the forest that would considerably intensify variability of water yields in Kilimanjaro’s catchments (Hemp, 2009).  The Pangani basin supplies water to the Tanga, Kilimanjaro, and Arusha regions, supporting a number of economically important activities. The devastation of 13,000 ha of forests in the upper reaches of Kilimanjaro has impacted areas where fog interception can represent 99% of the water input (Agrawala et al., 2003).


National Adaptation Programs of Action - UNFCCC

  • Improving food security
  • Reforestation

Issues facing the Kilimanjaro region and its inhabitants requires an immediate adaptation response. As a result of rainfall shortages, failures with crops and livestock has intensified food insecurity. Promoting local awareness in surrounding communities of the impacts of climate change on current crop production is a specific objective of the NAPA plan.  With this knowledge, farmers can adapt with drought tolerant food crops.

Impact of drought on crop fields

MSU Today

Kilimanjaro mountainside

Justin and Crystal

The dense forests lining the mountain slopes acted as a catchment system for water to flow, yielding to numerous rivers leading through the basin. In order to improve the livelihoods of communities surrounding Mt. Kilimanjaro, alternative sources of food and income are being explored through tree planting and economic diversification (NAPA, 2007).  By restoring the degraded areas around Mt. Kilimanjaro through community participation and the establishment of nurseries, river valleys can be conserved.

Mount Kilimanjaro derives its name from the Swahili words Kilima Njaro meaning “shining mountain”, a reference to its legendary ice cap (Agrawala et al., 2003). The importance in preserving the environment is pivotal in regards to local heritage as well as a necessity for livelihoods. Inhabitants within this region rely on the systems that the mountain provides such as water. In order to address these issues in adapting to the changing environment, action is dependent upon communal efforts. There are sufficient efforts from National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPA) regarding community development and education. This will engage residents and allow community members to become and stay aware of the changes that are occuring and facilitate possibilities for future action. However, there is a gap in international action. Funding and resources for water catchment systems and satisfactory irrigation plans would alleviate stressors during events of drought.

About the Author

Oliveah Sears is an Environmental Studies and Sociology major at St. Lawrence University, class of 2019.  This narrative was created for Professor Jon Rosales' Adapt to Climate Change course in the Spring of 2018.  Oliveah's interest in studying communities around Mt. Kilimanjaro stems from her semester abroad to Kenya in the Fall of 2017. During her time abroad she was able to visit farms and communities in this region, sharing original photos throughout the narrative.

Literature Citations

Agrawala, S., Moehner, A., Hemp, A., Van Alast, M., Hitz, S., Smith, J., . . . Mwaipopo, O. U. (2003). Development of climate change in Tanzania: Focus on Mount Kilimanjaro. Economic Co-operation and Development, 1-72.

Cullen, N. J., Sirguey, P., Kaser, G., Winkler, M., & Fitzsimons, S. J. (2013). A century of ice retreat on Kilimanjaro: the mapping reloaded. The Crysophere, 7, 419-431.

Hemp, A. (2009). Climate change and its impact on the forests of Kilimanjaro. African Journal of Ecology, 47(1), 3-10.  

IPCC: Niang, I., & Ruppel, O. C. (2014). Africa. Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, 1199-1265.

Kahsay, G. A., & Hansen, L. G. (2016). The effect of climate change and adaptation policy on agricultural production in Eastern Africa. Ecological Economics, 121, 54-64.

Molg, T., Cullen, N. J., Hardy, D. R., Kaser, G., & Klok, L. (2008). Mass balance of a slope glacier on Kilimanjaro and its sensitivity to climate. International Journal of Climatology, 28, 881-892.

Media Citations

Kahsay, G. A., & Hansen, L. G. (2016). The effect of climate change and adaptation policy on agricultural production in Eastern Africa. Ecological Economics, 121, 54-64.