By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
YAOUNDE, June 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Cameroon has cut thousands of hectares of forest to build stadiums, hotels, roads and housing to host the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations - a move that could lead to worsening urban flooding and droughts, the country's environmental groups warn.
"Cameroon's ability to host the 2019 Africa football Cup of Nations depends on the availability of adapted modern infrastructure," said Oumarou Tado, secretary general of Cameroon's Ministry of Sports and Physical Education.
"It is regrettable that many of these new projects have led to vast deforestation - but we had to meet the strict (guidelines) of the African football confederation," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In Yaounde, the capital, about 34 hectares of trees were cut to build the new Olembe stadium, about 13 km from the centre of the city. In Limbe, 30 hectares of forests were removed to create space for a stadium and a sport training facility.
Much more land has been cleared to build other facilities related to the 2019 competition, including roads, hotels and large new tracts of housing, environmentalists say.
Part of what has driven tree cutting, Tado said, is that specifications for Cup of Nations infrastructure improvements require the new facilities to be built in areas that are easily accessible but without traffic problems.
"These specifications were found in forested areas on the outskirts of major cities," he said.
Cameroon's legendary World Cup soccer player Roger Milla, a sports ambassador for the country, said forested areas had to give way to improve the country's sporting facilities, noting that "to make omelets one has to break eggs".
"Cameroon is a lead football nation in Africa but paradoxically without modern sports infrastructure. We have been waiting for this for a long time," said Milla, whose foundation Coeur d'Afrique has taken part in tree planting efforts in Yaounde since 2016.
'A BIG THREAT'
Environment experts, however, have criticised the decision to build on forested areas, saying urban trees must be protected if the country is to avoid worsening impacts of climate change, including flooding and droughts.
"Forests are very important in regulating city climate, thus their loss or degradation is a major source of emissions of carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change and is a big threat to the livelihood of the population," said Samuel Nguifo, executive director of the Centre for Environment and Development, a Yaounde environmental non-profit.
He said forests act as "air conditioners" for cities, cooling residents suffering increasingly hot weather.
Cameroon has in recent years seen large areas of forest cut for mining projects, new ports, hydroelectric dams and other projects under the country's Vision 2035 project.
That economic development plan aims to slash widespread unemployment and cut Cameroon's poverty rate from 40 percent in 2007 to less than 20 percent by 2035.
Between 2001 and 2016, Cameroon lost nearly 900,000 hectares of trees - a 2.8 percent reduction in the country's forests, according to data from Global Forest Watch, a forest monitoring initiative.
More than half of all the tree losses were in the Centre, South, East and Littoral regions where most new investment projects are concentrated, the data showed.
Adding football infrastructure has now made the pressure on Cameroon's existing "deforestation hotspots" worse, forest experts said.
"These new sports infrastructure projects will only increase the susceptibility of these cities to the effects of climate change," said Julius Chuezi Tieguhong, a forest researcher with the African Forest Forum.
The cities of Douala, Yaounde and Limbe have in recent years faced worsening water shortages, floods and rising temperatures - all problems likely to become worse as forest is cut, Tieguhong said.
In 2017, some roads and buildings in Cameroon's economic hub, Douala, were submerged following days of heavy rains, while in Yaounde the sight of women and children trekking across the city to fetch scarce drinking water has become increasingly common.
Cameroon's government, however, is hopeful that teaming up with city authorities to plant more urban trees can offset some of the damage.
Jules Doret Ndongo, the country's Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, this month signed a deal with 15 city councils in 10 regions of the country to plant more city trees and create new parks.
The effort "is a combined forest, floods, drought and water shortage protection effort," he said.
The government says city councils will receive over 600 million FCFA ($1 million) annually to help curb deforestation.
According to Bruno Mfou'ou Mfou'ou, director of forestry in the Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, tree planting efforts will target areas particularly suffering flooding or drought.
"Targeting vulnerable areas is critical in the fight against climate disasters," he said.
The city tree project comes on top of a 2017 government project that aims to restore 12 million hectares of deforested land in the country, Mfou'ou Mfou'ou noted.
(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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