African safari

The Physical Geography of Africa
March 7, 1997

This is a particularly useful text for anyone with a serious interest in Africa. In 21 chapters the book brings together a wide range of issues on the physical geography of the continent. It begins with an overview of the African landscape and its long-term development. This is followed by a chapter on the African rift system, a physical feature of continental scale.

There follow three chapters on climate past and present, environmental change within the historical period, and within the period of meteorological records. These are excellent and in scholarly fashion provide the reader with a wealth of stimulating material. Each of these early chapters on landscape and climate reviews relevant anglophone and francophone literature; authors trace the advancement of thought in a particular area, evaluate the changes in methodologies used and inform the reader on the current state of knowledge on the subject of each chapter.

Succeeding chapters analyse the character and, where appropriate, the changes in Africa's hydrology and rivers, in its lakes, soils and geomorphology. While the discussion largely focuses on physical factors, humans are increasingly implicated as causes of change in, for example, rivers and lakes. The book moves on to vegetation and in the first of three chapters considers the biogeography of the entire continent. A review of the historical and the contemporary biogeography and ecology of Africa reveals the influence of climate change on biogeographical patterns. This chapter paves the way for two more detailed chapters on forest environments and savanna environments. In the former a discussion of different forest formations is followed by an analysis of the human impact on forests and changes in forest distribution. There is an abundance of valuable material in this chapter but it is disappointing that the author makes no critical evaluation of terms such as "climax and actual vegetation cover'', particularly as the concept of climax vegetation in the tropics is increasingly being challenged. Furthermore, the basis of statistics on forest distribution is in no way queried. This would seem to be an omission in the light of current debate.

The chapter on savanna environments refers to much recent research but does not go far enough. Functional models of savanna are reviewed but little attempt is made to demonstrate the relative importance of different determinants at different scales. The theoretical concept of disequilibrium in savanna environments is also discussed but its implications for savanna management are far from adequately developed. Furthermore, the dynamics of savanna boundaries, particularly with forest, receive scant attention. Forest and savanna are followed by desert landscapes where the discussion concentrates on the wide range of environments that exist in deserts from the cool, foggy, hyperarid Namib desert to the hot, semi-arid southern Sahara. The impact of climate change on these areas is evident, particularly on the desert margins. Other environments also covered are coasts, wetlands, mountains and Mediterranean environments.

Soil erosion and desertification are major environmental problems in Africa. The chapter on soil erosion aptly demonstrates the problems of assessing the rate of erosion, of identifying its causes and of finding solutions to the problem. Misconceptions about soil erosion, it is argued, are rooted in ignorance and the need for much more scientific information on the subject is emphasised. Similarly, desertification, described as one of Africa's most complex and destructive problems, is shown to be far from under control. The author asserts that the problems of dryland Africa are poorly understood and that ignorance about the physical environment has led to the implementation of inappropriate attempts to solve the problems. The change in wisdom regarding dryland management is elegantly described, current emphasis being on greater involvement of indigenous people. The biodiversity of tropical Africa is taken up in the penultimate chapter and is complemented by the conclusion on conservation. The author argues that if conservation is ever to succeed it will require far greater participation by local people though there are many forms that this may take. The conservation debate is no longer a fringe issue but is a focal point in policy-level discussions on environment and development.

Written in honour of the geographer A. T. Grove, this book brings together very successfully in a single volume a vast range of material. One message that emerges is that there is much that is not known about the physical geography of Africa. Many long-held conclusions are shown to be highly suspect, if not inaccurate, and many authors emphasise the limitations of available data and the need for more empirical data.

A further myth that is exploded is that change, where it occurs, is consistent throughout the continent. Patterns of rainfall, river flow and lake levels are all shown to vary throughout Africa, thus warning against generalisation and emphasising the need for decisions to be location specific. The book will be invaluable to students of Africa, not only those interested in environmental issues and in environmental change, but also in Africa's development. Human geography is inseparable from physical geography and the paucity of scientific information on the physical environment has been a problem which has impeded the success of many development initiatives. This book thus makes a significant contribution to the literature on Africa and is much welcomed.

Kathleen M. Baker is lecturer in geography, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The Physical Geography of Africa

Editor - William M. Adams, Andrew S. Goudie and Antony R. Orme
ISBN - 0 19 828875 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £48.00
Pages - 429

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