In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environment

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies

African Studies Environment
A. T. Grove
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0086


The environment of Africa, as it is considered here, includes the atmosphere and its behavior over the long and short term; the rocks underlying the continent; its relief and minerals; rivers, lakes, and wetlands; forests and savanna; grasslands and deserts; soils and wildlife, and the threats to these and their conservation. Generally, the natural environment is regarded as being different from the built, or man-made, environment, but the distinction is somewhat artificial. The natural environment influences human behavior, and, at the same time, human activities modify the natural environment; the two are interwoven and change over time. In Africa the long-term history of the natural environment and especially the variations in climate over the millennia have had a bearing on the evolution of humanity. Climate variability in the short term continues to influence human experience in Africa, and climate change may do so in the future. In its early history, Africa was regarded as a source of gold and ivory but as a continent with a difficult environment on account of disease and accessibility. Even until the middle of the 20th century, Africa’s population was much sparser than it is in the early 21st century, with numbers increasing faster than on any other continent and approximately half the people living in towns and cities. Oil and natural gas, iron ore, copper, coal, and other minerals are being extracted on a large scale, rivers have been dammed for generating electricity, cropland is encroaching on grazing land and forests, and traditional agriculture and pastoralism are experiencing difficulties. Nearly everywhere the environment is under increasing pressure, with conditions changing from one decade to another. The concerns of the literature on the environment vary from one part of the continent to another. Whereas the West and North are mainly below 1,000 feet above sea level, much of the South and East of the continent are elevated above 3,000 feet. Except for the Atlas Mountains, in the far northwest, plus a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast, both of which receive rain in winter, and the irrigated Nile valley, desert occupies the continent north of latitude 15 degrees north and also extends south, through Somalia and eastern Ethiopia, into northeast Kenya. Much of western and central Africa south of latitude 15 degrees south is also dry. The extreme South and the Southeast are better watered. Equatorial western Africa, between 5 degrees north and 5 degrees south of the equator, is a high-rainfall region supporting rainforest. Extensive regions between the rainforest and the dry lands are occupied by savanna woodland, depending on summer rainfall.

General Overviews

Many books, such as Wellington 1955, are concerned with only a part of the continent. Wellington considered that the ultimate limits to economic development and population increase in southern Africa may be imposed by one factor: water supply. Lewis and Berry 1988, a textbook for college students, provides a sound introduction. Adams, et al. 1996 is a larger, multiauthored volume consisting of twenty-one contributions, mainly by geographers recognized as experts in their various fields.

  • Adams, W. M., A. S. Goudie, and A. R. Orme, eds. The Physical Geography of Africa. Oxford Regional Environments. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    A comprehensive view of the African environment, with long reference lists after each chapter.

  • Lewis, L. A., and L. Berry. African Environments and Resources. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1988.

    Somewhat dated, but still relevant.

  • Wellington, John H. Southern Africa: A Geographical Study. Vol. 1, Physical Geography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1955.

    Covers the subcontinent seen as “a home of man.”

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