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New research shows how deforestation and population growth have greatly impacted landslide risk in the Kivu Rift. This is what an international team of researchers established from an analysis of six decades of forest cover and population trends in the region. Lies Jacobs of the IBED department Ecosystem & Landscape Dynamics (ELD) was part of the team. The study is published in Nature Sustainability.

Landslides near a gold mine in Luhwinja in eastern DR Congo. The miners’ village is at the foot of the largest landslide. Photo: Olivier Dewitte

Changes in the environment affect landslide risk

Landslides occur in mountainous regions all over the world, causing thousands of fatalities each year. The strong population growth in recent decades, the associated increase in food demand, and the development of economic activities have incited more and more people to settle in steeper and thus more landslide-prone areas, often at the expense of natural ecosystems. Deforestation destabilizes the soil as tree roots decay, further increasing landslide hazard.

It is widely recognized that population pressure and associated land use change, such as deforestation, affect landslide disaster risk. However, strong evidence to support this was still lacking. Investigating these human-nature interactions is challenging, especially in the Global South, where historical landslide and forest records are scarce.

The historical legacy of deforestation and societal dynamics resonates in the landslide disaster risk to which people are exposed today

Historical perspective on the Kivu Rift

In a new study, researchers from the KU Leuven, the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) and the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) uncover these interactions between humans, the environment and landslides in the Kivu Rift in Africa close to the equator. This densely populated region in Burundi, Rwanda and eastern DR Congo is highly sensitive to landslides, which are usually triggered by heavy rainfalls.

Lies Jacobs of the IBED department Ecosystem & Landscape Dynamics (ELD) was part of team and second author. Arthur Depicker lead the team. 'We explored the link between population, deforestation and landslides: we evaluated changes in forest cover and demographic trends, and their impact on landslide risk, during no less than six decades,' explains geographer Arthur Depicker (KU Leuven, RMCA).

The researchers relied on more than 2000 historical aerial photographs from 1958, kept at the RMCA. This collection allowed them to study land use and deforestation (or afforestation) from the end of the 1950s until 2016 - a much longer time span than only satellite images would allow.

The interaction between forest cover, population and landslides

'With our reconstruction, we were able to show that deforestation is often linked to smallholder  agriculture in this area, but also, indirectly, to mining activities in a soil rich of mineral resources. Deforestation has considerably increased landslide occurrence. Scientific literature suggests that the impact of such drastic changes in forest cover is far more important than the impact of climate change,' says Depicker.

Schematic presentation of the main processes affecting landslide risk in the Kivu Rift. Image: Arthur Depicker

Landslides pose the greatest risk to society when they occur in densely populated areas. You can expect the greatest number of fatalities where people are forced to live on steep areas, for example to produce food, but also as a result of conflicts or economic activities such as artisanal mining. In this steep terrains landslides occur most likely.

'Our research also shows that landslide risk is not static, but changes over time. The historical legacy of deforestation and societal dynamics resonates in the landslide disaster risk to which people are exposed today,' explains Depicker.

Read the entire paper in Nature Sustainability
Historical dynamics of landslide risk from population and forest-cover changes in the Kivu Rift.
Arthur Depicker, Liesbet Jacobs, Nicholus Mboga, Benoît Smets, Anton Van Rompaey, Moritz Lennert, Eléonore Wolff, François Kervyn, Caroline Michellier, Olivier Dewitte, and Gerard Govers.