By Pablo Uchoa

From rock art in southern Africa to pyramids along the River Nile, humans have been leaving their mark across the continent for millennia.

Writing in the Azania journal, researchers from the UK, Kenya and the US say that “significant intervention” is needed to save these heritage sites.

As if to underline the warning, in recent weeks archaeologists in Sudan have been trying to stop floodwater from the River Nile from reaching the UN-designated World Heritage Site at al-Bajrawiya.

Meroe pyramids at the UN-designated World Heritage Site at al-Bajrawiya in SudanIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionThe UN-protected site of al-Bajrawiya has relics 2,300 years old

The river floods every year, but people working in the area have never seen the water spread so far.

The authors of the Azania report have identified a number of sites that they consider under threat.


Suakin, Sudan

The town gate at the Red Sea port of Suakin in SudanIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionSuakin has a long history linked to its strategic location on the Red Sea coast

Suakin, in north-eastern Sudan, was once an extremely important port on the Red Sea.

Its story began 3,000 years ago, when Egyptian pharaohs turned the strategically located port into a gateway for trade and exploration.

Suakin later became a hub for Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca and played a significant role in the Red Sea’s slave trade.

It also became part of the Ottoman Empire, though it lost its prominence as a port once Port Sudan was developed further north at the beginning of the 20th Century.

image captionThis photo, taken in 1930, shows the former splendour of Suakin

Much of Suakin is in decay but it still contains fine examples of houses and mosques, the UN’s cultural organisation, Unesco, says.

Professor Joanne Clarke from the UK’s University of East Anglia is currently working on research to quantify the speed at which the loss is being caused by the rise in the sea level and coastal erosion.


“What we do know is that the Red Sea coast will be impacted in the coming decades, which means what currently survives will be lost [without intervention],” she says.

Lamu Old Town, Kenya

A boy sits in front of a house in Lamu town.IMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionThe town is renowned for its distinctive architecture

The Old Town in Lamu is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, according to Unesco.

Unlike other towns and villages along the East African coast, many of which have been abandoned, Lamu has been continuously inhabited for more than 700 years.

It has also become a significant centre for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures, the UN adds.

image captionLamu is a 700-year-old fishing and trading town

However, Lamu has been “severely impacted by shoreline retreat”, meaning it has lost the natural protection once offered by sand and vegetation.

This is partly about the change in sea levels but Prof Clarke also blames the construction of the huge Lamu port to the north of the Old Town, “which is destroying the mangrove forests that protect the island from flooding”.


“So a lot of what we would call natural heritage is a protection for cultural heritage. And as we destroy the natural heritage, we also leave cultural heritage sites exposed.”

Coastal sites, Comoros Island

The city of Domoni on the west coast of Anjouan island, which is part of the Union of the ComorosIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionSeveral towns on the Comoros Islands have been proposed as World Heritage Sites

The Comoros, a volcanic archipelago off the East African coast, has several well-preserved sites, including a medina and a palace dating back hundreds of years

But it is one of the places “most threatened” by sea level rise in Africa, Prof Clarke says.

A woman is pictures in the medina of Mutsamudu, the capital of Anjouan Island, Comoros, March 2019IMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionThe medina of Mutsamudu is a 14th Century maritime town on the island of Anjouan

In a plausible scenario of moderate-to-high global carbon emissions, “significant parts of the African coastal zone will be inundated by 2100”, according to the study.

“By 2050, Guinea, The Gambia, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Congo, Tunisia, Tanzania and the Comoros will all be at significant threat of coastal erosion and sea-level rise.”

Coastal forts and castles, Ghana

Artillery battery at Cape Coast castle, GhanaIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionThe fortified posts on the Ghanaian coast played a role in the gold trade and later the slave trade

The coast of Ghana is dotted with fortified trading posts, founded between 1482 and 1786, that stretch 500km (310 miles) along the coast.

The castles and forts were built and occupied at different times by traders from Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Germany and the UK.

That infrastructure played a role in the gold trade and, later, in the rise and fall of the slave trade between Africa and the Americas.

Aerial view of Fort Williams, Anomabu, GhanaIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionSites on the West African coast are vulnerable to storm surges and sea-level rise

But the forts are located in areas that are highly vulnerable to the impact of storm surges and the rise in the sea level.

Prof Clarke says some examples of that architecture, such as Fort Prinzenstein in Keta, eastern Ghana, are being “eroded into the sea”.

Comparing current images of the fort with ones shot 50 years ago, it is possible to see the way that the structure has crumbled.

Rock art at Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Rock art engravings at Twyfelfontein World Heritage Site at Uibasen Conservancy, Damaraland, NamibiaIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionTwyfelfontein was declared a World Heritage Site in 2007

Climate change can increase humidity in relatively arid areas, and create the conditions for the proliferation of fungi and microbial life on rocks.

That is what is happening at sites such as Twyfelfontein in Namibia’s Kunene region, which has one of the largest concentrations of rock art in Africa.

Unesco describes it an “extensive and high-quality record of ritual practices relating to hunter-gatherer communities in this part of southern Africa over at least 2,000 years”.

But these could be lost.

Djenné, Mali

The great Mosque at Djenné in Mali, built out of mud from the Niger RiverIMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionDjenné’s extraordinary history dates back to the third Century BC

The 2,000 or so mud houses of Djenné form some of the most iconic images of Mali. Inhabited since 250 BC, Djenné was a market town and an important link in the trans-Saharan gold trade.

In the 15th and 16th Centuries, it was one of the centres for the propagation of Islam across West Africa.

But climate change has affected the availability of high-quality mud used by the original residents for those constructions.

Local people, who have also seen their income drop due to crop failures, have to rely on cheaper materials which is “radically changing the town’s appearance”, the study says.

image captionResidents have to rely on cheaper materials to repair their houses, changing the town’s original appearance

Prof Clarke says that “climate change has the ability to be a threat multiplier. It has indirect impacts which are arguably more serious than the direct impact”.

‘Unbelievably wonderful sites’

Some countries are better placed to deal with the impact of climate change on their cultural heritage.

Egypt, for example, sits on a low-lying region at “severe risk of flooding in the coming decades” yet is well-equipped to deal with some of the challenges.

Rock paintings depicting hunters, long-horned cattle and antelope, giraffes and elephants decorate granite caves in Laas Geel, Somalia. Pictured in June 2017IMAGE COPYRIGHTGETTY IMAGES
image captionA man sits next to 5,000-year-old elaborate rock paintings depicting hunters and animals in Somalia, which has no UN-listed heritage site

There are places like the self-declared republic of Somaliland which has some ancient cave drawings but needs more help in protecting them.

Archaeologically, some of the “most unbelievably wonderful sites” exist there, Prof Clarke says.

Her research aims to shed light on those sites, which are little known to the rest of the world, and she fears “will disappear and no-one will know”.

All images are subject to copyright.