Heritage sites threatened by rising water sea levels

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

A report has listed Kenya as one of the countries whose area under heritage is most exposed to accelerating sea levels. The report titled African heritage sites threatened as sea-level rise accelerates, was published 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 as well as port cities of Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara in Tanzania are among those under threat.

The report assessed exposure of heritage sites to flooding and erosion along the entire coastline. “We create the first continent-wide, digitised, geospatial database of 284 coastal African Heritage Sites, combining 71 cultural World Heritage Sites and 213 natural World Heritage Sites that are either already recognised, or now under consideration by UNesco World Heritage Centre and Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance,” the report read.

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

“Multiple heritage sites, including World Heritage Sites of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’, are located in the low-lying coastal zone and therefore also face threats from coastal hazards due to rising sea levels. Sea levels have been rising at a faster rate over the past three decades compared with the 20th century, a process expected to gather pace through the 21st century,” it said.

The report reveals that courtesy of changing weather patterns, the situation will intensify coastal flooding and coastal erosion, exacerbating damages to coastal zone assets.

The assessment revealed that North Africa has the largest number of exposed sites with 23 of a total of 109 already affected. West Africa has 18 sites exposed, Southern Africa has seven, while East Africa and Small Island Developing States have the fewest sites exposed.

 Of the asset sites, Fifty-six (20 per cent) of the 284 identified African heritage sites are currently exposed to a 1-in-100-year coastal extreme event. Thirty-five of the 213 natural heritage sites (16%) and 21 of the 71 cultural heritage sites (30%) are exposed to a 100-year coastal extreme event.

In Kenya, the rising sea level is said to have affected seagrass cover, weakening natural coastal protection and further exacerbating flood risk.

“The eastern African coast, a region of high diversity of seagrass, is subject to frequent anthropogenic disturbance, resulting in the loss of about 21 per cent of Kenya’s seagrass cover between 1986 and 2016. Such transitions could have further indirect effects and weaken natural coastal protection, exacerbating flood risk,” says the report.

The report noted the fate of coral reefs depends on future marine heatwaves and ocean acidification trends, which are expected to increase all around 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. They include the iconic ruins of Tipasa (Algeria) and North Sinai Archaeological Sites Zone (Egypt). “By 2050, the number of exposed sites is projected to triple to almost 200 sites under high emissions,” says the report.

Tunisia contains the most heritage sites (34), seven of which are exposed to a 100-year event, with two of them being highly exposed. Morocco and Senegal have seven exposed sites each and Egypt four.

Africa is home to some of the most diverse cultural and bio-cultural heritages in the world, internationally recognised for its uniqueness and ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.