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New UN Atlas shows satellite images of environmental change in Asia

New UN Atlas shows satellite images of environmental change in Asia

New UN Atlas shows satellite images of environmental change in Asia

UNEP News Release 2005/27
June 5, 2005

The following is a highlight from the United Nations Environment Programme’s new Atlas, “One Planet Many People Atlas of Our Changing Environment”

Asia Pacific and West Asia

The dramatic disappearance of what was once the world’s biggest date palm forest is highlighted.

Along the Shatt al-Arab estuary in Iraq and Iran, there once stood up to 18 million palms or a fifth of the world’s date trees.

War, pests and the salting-up of the region as a result of dams and the desiccation of the Mesopotamian marshlands have now taken a heavy toll.

Satellite images indicate that more than 14 million trees, or 80 per cent of what were there in the 1970s, have gone.

The date trade from the Shatt al-Arab was once second only to oil. The livelihoods of millions of people dependent on dates for food and income are in ruin.

The OK Tedi copper mine in Papua New Guinea has had a controversial history.

Annually the 20 year-old mine, sited in the rain-forested Star Mountains of the country’s western province, discharges 70 million tonnes of waste. This has spread 1,000km down the OK Tedi and Fly rivers.

Satellite images, taken in 1990 and last year, clearly show changes to the width of a nearby tributary, the OK Mani river, which has now become the primary recipient of the mud, sludge and other wastes.

The wastes have raised the height of local riverbeds triggering more frequent flooding, damaged forests and the area’s rich biodiversity.

The Huang He or Yellow River is the world’s muddiest. It brings huge amounts of sediments, mainly mica, quartz and feldspar, from areas such as the plateaus of north-central China.

A quite remarkable change in the mouth of the river is now seen from space when compared with an image from May 1979.

Here a giant animal-like head has formed, stretching out into the Bohai Sea, as a result of sedimentation from the interior.

The drying up of Lake Balkash, Kazakhstan, is graphically illustrated from space.

Asia’s second largest lake after the Aral Sea, Balkash is crucial for supply water to farmers, towns and cities and industry. It also supports an important fishery.

But excessive water use is causing the lake to dry up and it may disappear altogether unless the trend is reversed.

The atlas shows the drying out round the lake’s edges and the rapid disappearance of two smaller, neighboring lakes to the southeast.

The Wadi As-Sirhan region of Saudi Arabia was once so barren and dry that it could barely support the towns of Al’Isawiyah and Tubarjal.

Seen from space, the area is now a series of curious green dots set against the desert background.

It is a result of a method of high-tech irrigation known as center-pivot-irrigation, which was introduced in the early 1990s. The farms are tapping into ancient, up to 20,000 year-old, underground water supplies.

Satellite images from 1973 to the present day reveal just how bad the situation in the Dead Sea has become.

Both Israel (Europe) and Jordan draw off water from rivers entering the sea and there have been extensive development of evaporation ponds for salt production.

Other developments, including water impoundment projects and land reclamation schemes, are taking their toll.

As a result, it is estimated that water levels in the Dead Sea are dropping by about one metre a year.

The images not only chronicle the huge expansion of evaporation ponds in the southern section of the sea, but also the rapid exposure of arid land around the coastline.

Levels have fallen so much that the southern section is becoming a lake after now being almost cut off from the rest of the sea.

Asia Pacific Cities

It may come as no surprise that Beijing, China’s capital city, has undergone tremendous growth since the start of economic reforms in 1979. Its population now numbers some 13 million.

The satellite images underline just how tremendous this has been with Beijing mushrooming from a small central area to one that has turned towns some distance away, such as Ginghe and Fengtai, into suburbs.

The expansion is seen to have also gobbled up the deciduous forests to the west and the rice, winter wheat and vegetable plots that once surrounded the city.

A similar, huge expansion is seen for Delhi, India’s capital. In 1975, the city had a population of 4.4 million or 3.3 per cent of India’s urban population.

By 2000, the city had well over 12 million inhabitants. By 2010, it is set to rise to nearly 21 million.

The latest satellite images show Delhi’s growth concentrated in the suburbs of Faridabad, Ghaziabad and Gurgaon.

Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, has grown from a city of 2.5 million in the early 1970s to one with more than 10 million. The images chart the spread of urbanization north into Tonji and towards Turag.

Sydney is Australia’s largest city with over four million inhabitants. Its growth is seen spreading west towards the Blue Mountains. The urbanization is leading to more and more homes being built in the bush making them vulnerable to summer fires.

West Asia Cities

The rapid expansion of Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, since 1972 is starkly portrayed.

Over the past 30 years it has grown from 500,000 people to more than two million as a result of migration from urban areas, a decrease in death rates and high birth rates.

The growth has been made possible by Saudi Arabia’s big investments in desalination plants that extract drinking water from seawater.

Seen as small dark and red patch in 1972, the latest satellite image shows a grid-like network of blue lines that are roads and a more than trebling of the urban area.

The publication “One Planet Many People: Atlas of our Changing Environment ” can be purchased at Earth Print

More information on the “One Planet Many People: Atlas of our Changing Environment ” can be found at or

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