Cultural heritage sites threatened by sea level rise

A seawall erected at the site of the Vasco Da Gama pillar in Malindi, Kilifi County on Thursday, July 2, 2020. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

A report has listed Kenya as one of the countries whose cultural heritage area is most exposed to rising sea levels. The report, titled “African heritage sites threatened by accelerating sea level rise,” was released on February 10.

Kenya appears in the list with Mozambique, Senegal and Mauritania.

Kenya’s Fort Jesus in Mombasa, the Vasco Da Gama Pillar in Malindi and the port cities of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara in Tanzania are among others threatened.

The report assessed the vulnerability of heritage sites to flooding and erosion along the entire coastline. “We are creating the first continent-wide, digitized geospatial database of 284 African coastal heritage sites, combining 71 World Cultural Heritage sites and 213 Natural World Heritage sites that are either already recognized or are now under review by the UNesco World Heritage Center and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.” it in the report.

While heritage sites have important cultural, environmental, historical, social and economic values, the report found that climate change hazards such as river floods, heat waves and wildfires threaten cultural heritage worldwide.

“Several cultural heritage sites, including World Heritage sites of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’, are located in the low-lying coastal zone and are therefore also threatened by coastal hazards due to rising sea levels. Sea levels have risen at a faster rate over the past three decades compared to the 20th century, a process expected to gain momentum in the 21st century,” it said.

The report shows that due to changing weather patterns, the situation will increase coastal flooding and coastal erosion and exacerbate damage to coastal zone assets.

The assessment showed that North Africa has the largest number of exposed sites, with 23 out of a total of 109 already affected sites. Eighteen sites have been uncovered in West Africa, seven in Southern Africa, while East Africa and the Small Island Developing States have the fewest uncovered sites.

Of the asset locations, 56 (20 percent) of the 284 identified African heritage sites are currently exposed to a coastal extreme event that occurs every 100 years. 35 of the 213 natural heritage sites (16%) and 21 of the 71 cultural heritage sites (30%) face a 100-year extreme coastal event.

In Kenya, rising sea levels are said to have affected seagrass cover, weakened natural coastal protection and further exacerbated the risk of flooding.

“The East African coast, a region with high seagrass diversity, is subject to frequent anthropogenic disturbances that resulted in a loss of about 21 percent of Kenya’s seagrass cover between 1986 and 2016. Such transitions could have other indirect impacts and the natural coastlines weaken protection and exacerbate flood risk,” the report says.

The report noted that the fate of coral reefs depends on future sea heatwaves and ocean acidification trends, which are expected to increase across the continent – while mangroves are also threatened by rising seas. Currently, 56 sites are at risk from a 1-in-100-year coastal extreme event in Africa. These include the iconic ruins of Tipasa (Algeria) and the North Sinai Archaeological Sites Zone (Egypt). “By 2050, the number of exposed sites is expected to triple to almost 200 high-emission sites,” the report said.

Tunisia contains the most cultural heritage sites (34), seven of which face a 100-year event and two of which are endangered. Morocco and Senegal each have seven exposed sites and Egypt has four.

Africa is home to some of the most diverse cultural and biocultural heritages in the world, internationally recognized for their uniqueness and “Outstanding Universal Value”.

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