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Survival of top heritage sites in Kenya at risk as effects of climate change bite

By Philip Mwakio | April 5th 2016
Children play football behind the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa County. [PHOTO: GIDEON MAUNDU/STANDARD]

NAIROBI: The effects of global warming are taking their toll on historical sites along the Kenyan Coast.

According to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), heritage sites and landmarks like the Fort Jesus Museum, Vasco da Gama Pillar and the old British Customs House along the country’s coastline face an uncertain future due to rising sea levels.

In an interview with Business Beat, NMK Director General Mzalendo Kibunjia said rising water levels, fuelled by melting glaciers and ice caps, threaten to submerge these coastal landmarks.

He said Fort Jesus Museum, which is a world heritage site, the Vasco da Gamma Pillar and Customs House are facing the prospect of collapse as their coral foundations are “being threatened by strong tidal waves due to rising sea levels”.

Dr Kibunjia added that a recent a feasibility study conducted by heritage experts and marine engineers from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has warned that if things continue unchanged, many coastal sites of historical and cultural significance would soon be completely under water.

Historical sites at the Coast are among the country’s biggest tourist attractions.

The director general added that climate change is expected to lead to more severe storms, which would erode coastal sites, but NMK has developed a “rescue programme” to fortify sites at risk.

As part of mitigation measures, NMK will spend Sh100 million on rehabilitating Fort Jesus Museum, and a further Sh15 million on the Vasco da Gama Pillar to ensure they are protected from the vagaries of nature.

“We are doing everything possible to fortify these historical and cultural edifices along the coastline to ensure they are not submerged, and to preserve them for the sake of posterity’’ Kibunjia said.

Important destinations

He highlighted the need to preserve the country’s heritage assets that date back several centuries, and have made Mombasa, Malindi and Kwale counties important destinations for tourists from across the world.

The Vasco da Gama Pillar was built by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in Malindi, and is the oldest remaining European monument in tropical Africa. It was built in 1498 and is today visited as an architectural treasure.

The historical pillar was made with Lisbon limestone and bears Portugal’s coat of arms. It attracts large numbers of visitors particularly from Germany, Portugal and Italy.

Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese in 1593-1596 and sits on 2.36 hectares. It is one of the most outstanding and well-preserved examples of 16th century Portuguese military fortification.

Located in Kenya’s South Coast, the Customs House in Vanga, built in the early 1900s, is one of the oldest symbols of British colonial history along the East African coast.

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