By Khanyi Mlaba
Losing these sites could mean losing so much of Africa’s history forever.
The impact of climate change on Africa’s heritage sites has previously not been documented or considered a serious issue, according to the authors of a new report that aims to correct that.
The study — published in the Azania journal, which documents archeological research in Africa — warns that if action is not taken to preserve the continent’s heritage sites, many could be lost in the coming decades due to the direct and indirect impacts of global warming and climate change.
While there continues to be research on the preservation of heritage from climate change in North America and Europe, little has been done in Africa.
Yet the effects of climate change have steadily been eating away at some of the continent’s culture-rich sites due to a rise in sea levels, an increase in humidity, and extreme weather conditions. Without immediate intervention, the study warns, these sites may well no longer exist in a few years to come.
The study suggests that Africa needs to put a strong emphasis on research into climate and archaeology in the next decade in order to have a chance at saving the continent’s heritage.
Culture and heritage form the core of a country’s history, provide its citizens with an identity, and can even, according to the study, be referred to when considering modern systems and laws. Losing irreplaceable heritage sites means losing a part of Africa’s story.
“The loss of heritage may not be felt immediately, but incremental loss, over time, could mean that we sleepwalk into a world where all kinds of valuable — indeed critical — heritage no longer exist,” the study concludes.
According to the study, these are the sites that face an immediate threat from climate change:
1. Suakin, Sudan
Once an important and luxurious port on the Red Sea in north-eastern Sudan, Suakin now suffers from a large amount of decay.
Before Port Sudan was developed, Suakin was the chief port of Sudan. According to the BBC, its creation dates back thousands of years to when Egyptian Pharaohs considered it to be a convenient gateway for trade and exploration.
It then became a vital point of international trade and was also prominent in the slave trade on the Red Sea. At its peak, it formed part of the Ottoman Empire.
The structure of the port was primarily built with coral; and as Suakin stands less than 10 metres above sea-level, coastal erosion is a very real threat to the site.
2. Lamu Old Town, Kenya
Constructed with coral and mangrove timber, Lamu Old Town, the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, is highly vulnerable to coastal erosion.
Lamu was once the most important trade centre in East Africa, according to the UN’s Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Through trade and a growing population, the town was at the forefront of technological, religious, and cultural development. Lamu is still densely populated to this day, making it the only Swahili settlement to remain continuously inhabited for over 700 years.
The rise in sea levels has resulted in the loss of most of Old Town Lamu’s shorelines, which has ultimately led to the loss of sand and vegetation that provided the town with natural protection.
3. Several coastal sites, the Comoros Islands
The Comoros, a volcanic archipelago located in the Indian Ocean, in the Mozambique Channel.
The Comoros, a volcanic archipelago located in the Indian Ocean, in the Mozambique Channel, is one of the places most threatened by sea level rise in Africa, according to the BBC.
The archipelago was first inhabited in 1000 BC, and tells the story of various diverse cultures taking turns to inhabit the islands before being colonised by the French in the 19th century. They became independent as recent as 1975.
The study in the Azania Journal lists several coastal African countries facing significant threat of erosion by the year 2050. The list includes Guinea, The Gambia, Nigeria, Togo, Bénin, Congo, Tunisia, Tanzania (including Zanzibar), and the Comoros Islands.
“Significant parts of the African coastal zone will be inundated by 2100,” the study highlights.
4. Colonial forts and castles, Ghana
São Jorge da Mina Castle, Elmina, Ghana built by Portuguese in 1482.
Spanning 500km (310 miles) of the coast, Ghana’s castles and forts were established between 1482 and 1786. According to UNESCO, traders from Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Germany, and Britain occupied the sites at different times.
These sites not only hold cultural significance for Ghana, but are important for world history too, as they were the focus of first the gold trade and then the slave trade.
Because of where they are situated, these historical monuments are susceptible to damage from storm surges and a rise in sea levels.
5. Rock Art at Twyfelfontein, Namibia
Twyfelfontein is home to the largest concentration of rock art in Africa.
Twyfelfontein is home to the largest concentration of rock art in Africa. The rock engravings and paintings reflect economic and cultural practices that date back over two millennia.
Unfortunately as temperatures rise in the region, so does the humidity. These weather changes can create conditions for the growth of fungi and microbial life on rock surfaces, which could result in the loss of rock art.
6. Djenné, Mali
A view of the Great Mosque of Djenné, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988 along with the old town of Djenné, in the central region of Mali.
The ancient town of Djenné, whose history dates back to 250 BC, was mostly constructed out of mud. It gained popularity as an important trade port between central and western Sudan. As the town grew in the 15th and 16th centuries, it played an instrumental part in populating Islam in West Africa.
Due to climate change, the constructions in Djenné, that are mostly made of mud, have continuously faced serious degradation.
An indirect effect of climate change is a limited supply of the high-quality mud used to build and maintain the homes and buildings in Djenné, meaning that residents have to rely on cheaper materials to maintain the historic houses.