Sea level rise threatens Africa’s cultural heritage

The value of heritage has been underestimated in climate policy and sustainability circles, but heritage is crucial to people’s identity, culture and well-being. It is also essential for the sustainability of communities, ecosystems and biodiversity.

We already know that climate change is impacting African heritage sites. The issue is gaining visibility. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other leading bodies recently commissioned the first white paper on climate risks to World Heritage. The document must be submitted in July 2022.

But measurable evidence related to the future impacts of climate change on African heritage has been negligible, limited to a handful of studies of the impacts of sea level rise on North African cultural heritage sites.

This prompted a collaboration between an international group of experts to produce concrete data. We are in the fields of climate risk, coastal modelling, coastal engineering, geographic information systems, African archeology and heritage. We model the impacts of extreme sea levels and erosion, including a single event every 100 years, on African heritage sites.

The objective of the research was to accurately map the physical extent of African heritage sites using geospatial techniques and then overlay them with inundation maps. The maps are based on models of extreme sea level data. The result was an estimate of the future exposure of heritage sites to sea level rise and coastal erosion.

Our research will help heritage managers identify and prioritize key areas for heritage conservation and climate change adaptation.


African heritage on display

UNESCO World Heritage sites and Ramsar wetland sites for the entire African continent were included in the study. Africa is poorly represented on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, so the team also mapped sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative Lists. A total of 284 sites were mapped; 213 natural sites and 71 cultural sites.

Combined inundation and erosion models created specifically for the project were overlaid on the map of African heritage sites. Different future climate scenarios were modeled at different time intervals for site exposure to flooding and erosion associated with future sea levels.

The results show that 56 sites (20%) are currently at risk of an event in 100 years. By 2050, that number will more than triple to 191, even if carbon emissions remain moderate, the scenario climate scientists have dubbed RCP4.5. The number of exposed sites increases by seven to 198 (70%) in a high emissions scenario. This is known as RCP8.5, or business as usual.

Although only seven additional sites are exposed in this scenario, the degree of exposure for each site increases significantly.

Geographies of exposure to climate change

Among the most exposed cultural sites are the emblematic ruins of Tipasa (Algeria), the Zone of Archaeological Sites of North Sinai (Egypt), the Saloum Delta in Senegal and Kunta Kinteh in Gambia. Cultural sites like Tipasa support local businesses that depend on tourism revenue generated by the site.

The most exposed natural sites are the Marais de la Mekhada (Algeria), the Diawling National Park (Mauritania) and Lake Burullus (Egypt).

North and West Africa have the most exposed sites, while sites in small island states are particularly at risk.

Some countries will see their entire coastal heritage exposed to extreme sea levels by the end of the century, regardless of carbon mitigation strategy. Some of these countries are classified as least developed countries on a list of development assistance that provides funding. In these countries, heritage sites compete with drinking water, education and energy for funding. Funding for the conservation of heritage sites is often a very low priority.

Countries in this position include Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Djibouti, Western Sahara, Libya, Mozambique, Mauritania and Namibia. Djibouti, the DRC, Mozambique and Mauritania are classified among the least developed countries.

Cameroon is a low to middle income country, Libya is a conflict zone and Western Sahara is a disputed territory. They have very few resources to reverse the impacts of climate change on their heritage sites.

Climate Action for African Heritage

How we respond to climate change matters for heritage. If climate change mitigation reduces greenhouse gas emissions from high to moderate levels by 2050, the number of highly exposed heritage sites can be reduced by 25%.

Unprecedented investments are needed to monitor the exposure of these sites and work with local communities to mobilize adaptation response strategies.

These results motivate commensurate amounts of climate finance to avert significant climate change loss and damage to Africa’s heritage.

Decolonial approaches through research and practice can also begin to address systemic inequalities, recognize the extent of heritage, and strengthen adaptation actions in Africa and globally.

This article was written by Joanne Clarke, Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia; Lena Reimann, postdoctoral researcher on water and climate risks at the Institute for Environmental Studies of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Michalis Vousdoukas, coastal oceanographer at the Joint Research Center of the European Commission; and Nicholas P. Simpson, postdoctoral researcher at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town. Articles in English

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