The threat of climate change in Africa

Updated: May 16

Africans have been leaving their mark on the continent for millennia, from the rock arts in the southern parts of Africa to the pyramids along the Nile.Unfortunately, extreme weather events like the rise in sea levels and other effects brought by climate change are destroying significantly valuable landmarks, as warned by a recent study.

Researchers from Kenya, Uk and the US are saying that "significant intervention" is important to save those heritage sites. To underline this warning, archaeologists in Sudan have been trying to stop flooding from the River Nile from reaching the designated World Heritage site at al-Bajrawiya shown below.

People working in the area say that the river floods every year, but also say they have never seen the water spread so far. Here are a number of sites that the authors of the Azania report have identified.

Suakin, Sudan

Suakin's story began 3,000 years ago. Located in north-eastern Sudan, it was once an extremely important port on the Red Sea. The Egyptian pharaohs turned it into a gateway for trade and exploration due to its strategic location. Later in history, Suakin became a center for Muslim pilgrims making their way to Mecca and was also very significant in the Red Sea's slave trade. The Ottoman Empire took control of it also during its reign, but Suakin lost its prominence as they developed Port Sudan situated farther north at the beginning of the 20th Century. Picture of Suakin in the 1930's

These days, much of Suakin is in decay but it still contains examples of houses and mosques, Unesco says. A researcher from the UK's University of East Anglia, Professor Joanne Clarke is working to predict and 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

According to the UN, the Old Town in Lamu is the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Lamu has been continuously inhabited for more than 700 years, which is something uncommon along the the continent's East coast since most of the villages and towns have been abandoned along the years through history. It also a significant centre for the study of Islamic and Swahili cultures.

Lamu is a 700 year old Fishing Town in Africa

Lamu has lost a lot of the natural protection it once possessed due to sand and vegetation, now, it has a "severely impacted Shoreline retreat" due to the disappearance of that protection. According to Prof Clarke, This is partly due to the change in sea levels and also 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." she adds. "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 Comoros is a volcanic archipelago off the East African coast. It has several well-preserved sites that includes a medina and a palace dating back hundreds of years. Unfortunately, that medina is one of the places " most threatened" by sea level rise in Africa, according to Prof Clarke. The medina of Mutsamudu is a 14th Century maritime town on the island of Anjouan

"Significant parts of the African coastal zone will be inundated by 2100", that is what is predicted by a study done for a plausible scenario of moderate-to-high global carbon emissions. " 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

Founded between 1482 and 1786, the coast of Ghana is dotted with fortified trading posts. They stretch 500km (310 miles) along the coast. These castles and forts were occupied by different traders at different times in history from Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Germany and the UK. That infrastructure helped in the the gold trade and slave trade between Africa and the Americas.

Sites on the West African coast are vulnerable to storm surges and sea-level rise

Nonetheless, the forts are located in areas that are vulnerable to the storm surges and impact of the rise in sea level. Prof Clarke points out how some examples of that architecture, such as Fort Prinzenstein in Keta, eastern Ghana, are being "eroded into the sea". Comparing shots of those forts from 50 years ago would reveal how much the structure has crumbled.

Rock art at Twyfelfontein, Namibia

Due to climate change, humidity can increase 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 Kuene region, it has one of the largest concentrations of rock art in Africa. The UN describes it as 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". Although these could be lost.

Djenné, Mali

Mali contains some of the most iconic images of the world with its 2,000 or so mud houses of Djenné. Inhabited since 250 BC, Djenné was a market town and an important connection to trans-Saharan gold trade. It was one of the centres for the propagation of Islam across West Africa in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

But climate change has affected the availability of high-quality mud used by the original residents for those constructions. Also due to crop failures, Local people have seen their income drop and are relying on cheaper materials which is "radically changing the town's appearance" the study says.

Residents 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 than others at dealing 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.

A 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".

Some places exist like the self-declared republic of Somaliland which has ancient cave drawings but needs help in protecting them. Archaeologically, some of the "most unbelievably wonderful sites" exist there, Prof Clarke says. A research also aims at shedding light on those sites, which are little known and could disappear without anyone knowing. All images are subject to copyright.

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