Africa risks losing coastal heritage sites to erosion and rising oceans

Saturday February 19 2022
Sea wall

Contractors build a sea wall at the Vasco Da Gama Pillar in Malindi, Kenya, to protect the pillar from collapsing. PHOTO | FILE


Africa’s natural and cultural coastal heritage sites could be lost due to climate change, experts warn.

The sites, many of which have been assigned Outstanding Universal Value by Unesco, are at risk from mass flooding and erosion of coastlines.

Living artefacts, non-living iconic entities, aspects of the natural world and remains of ancient architectural treasures are among the threatened sites.

On the East African coast, Fort Jesus in Mombasa, the Vasco Da Gama Pillar in Malindi, and the two port cities of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara in Tanzania are under threat.

Also at risk of beng lost to the sea in Kenya is the Siyu Fort in Lamu, the Shimoni slave caves and the 16th century Kongo mosque in Kwale and Jumba La Mtwana in Kilifi.

A global team of climate risk and heritage experts, led by Nicholas Simpson from the University of Cape Town’s African Climate and Development Initiative, found that 56 of the 284 identified African heritage sites are currently exposed to a one-in-100-year extreme sea level event.


“By 2050, the number of exposed sites is projected to more than triple, reaching almost 200, from high emissions,” said the team in findings published in the Nature Climate Change on February 10.

Mozambique has the biggest exposed heritage area with a median value exceeding 5,683 km2, followed by Senegal (2,291 km2), Mauritania (1,764 km2) and Kenya (822 km2).

At least 35 of the 213 natural heritage sites (16 percent) and 21 of the 71 cultural heritage sites (30 percent) are at risk.

Tanzania, Mozambique, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo and South Africa will by the end of the century have at least 100 times more exposed heritage area than at present.

Sea-level rise

In Tanzania the Kilwa Kisiwani, about 300km south of Dar es Salaam, faces uncertain future due to sea-level rise.

The National Museums of Kenya recently fortified Fort Jesus and the Vasco Da Gama Pillar, two of the oldest remaining European monuments in Africa.

But experts warn that most countries have not demonstrated adequate adaptive capacity to anticipate or establish heritage protection commensurate with the severity of hazards.

“There are several countries which are projected to have all their coastal heritage sites exposed to the 100-year coastal extreme event by the end of the century, regardless of the scenario: Cameroon, Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Western Sahara, Libya, Mozambique, Mauritania, and Namibia,” says the report.

“Small island heritage sites are especially at risk. For example, Aldabra Atoll, the world's second-largest coral atoll, and Kunta Kinteh Island (The Gambia) could both see significant amounts of their extent exposed by 2100 under high emissions raising questions of their survivability under climate change.” A co-author on the paper, University of East Anglia School of Art, Media, and American Studies, Prof Joanne Clarke, added.