HomeAfrican NewsPERSPECTIVE | Africa's heritage sites in jeopardy as the planet warms

PERSPECTIVE | Africa’s heritage sites in jeopardy as the planet warms


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  • Dozens of African landmarks are being threatened by climate impacts.
  • The ruins of Carthage and Sabratha, as well as Mount Kilimanjaro, are in danger.
  • Lack of funding, research hinders conservation efforts.
  • For more financial news, go to the front page of News24 Business.

From the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro to the ruins of the ancient Tunisian city of Carthage and Senegal’s slave island of Gorée, Africa holds a wealth of iconic cultural and natural heritage sites.

But the impacts of climate change, from higher temperatures to worsening flooding, now threaten to doom these and dozens more African landmarks to the history books.

As wealthy nations scramble to protect their cultural monuments from extreme weather and rising sea levels, African countries face additional hurdles, including a shortage of funding and a dearth of archaeological expertise, conservationists and researchers said.

“These sites are places we learned about in school: they are our identity and history. They are irreplaceable. If we lose them, we will never get them back,” said Nick Simpson, a research associate at the African Climate and Development Initiative at City University. Cape.

“Africa has already experienced widespread loss and damage attributable to human-induced climate change: biodiversity loss, water scarcity, food loss, loss of life and reduced economic growth. We cannot afford to lose our heritage as well.”

Some historical milestones have already succumbed.

For visitors to the historic slave colonial forts scattered along the West African coast, an important ritual is to pass through the “Gate of No Return,” a centuries-old gate that leads directly from the citadel to the shoreline. .

The custom pays tribute to the millions of Africans who were forcibly removed from their homeland during the transatlantic slave trade, retracing their final steps when they were herded from the dungeons through the gate of the slave ships, never to be to return.

But at the 18th-century Danish slave-holding post in Ghana, Fort Prinzenstein, the original metal entrance and an adjoining passageway are now missing.

“The main ‘Gate of No Return’ was swept away by tidal waves long ago,” said James Ocloo Akorli, caretaker of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Africa has about a fifth of the world’s population, but produces less than 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions, the main driver of climate change.

Despite this, the continent is disproportionately affected by climate shocks such as droughts and floods, underscoring the need for countries to invest in projects that protect infrastructure and improve resilience.

At the COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt, which begins on Sunday, world leaders will debate how much financial assistance rich countries should provide to developing nations to help them cope with the effects of global warming.

Typhoons, floods and erosion

There is no comprehensive data on the total number of African heritage places at risk, but research co-led by Simpson into coastal sites found that 56 places are already facing flooding and erosion exacerbated by rising sea levels.

By 2050, if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, this number could more than triple to 198 sites, according to the study, published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change in February.

Places at risk include the towering ruins of the Numidian-Roman port of Sabratha in Libya, the ancient Punic-Roman trading post of Tipasa in Algeria and the archaeological sites of northern Sinai in Egypt, the study found.

Kunta Kinteh Island in the Gambia and the Togolese village of Aneho-Glidji, both linked to the history of the African slave trade, are also at risk, he said.

A wide range of Outstanding Natural Value Sites are also extremely vulnerable as higher temperatures melt glaciers, raise sea levels and cause more coastal erosion.

These include centers rich in biodiversity such as Cape Verde’s Curral Velho wetland with its unique vegetation and migratory birds and Aldabra in the Seychelles, one of the largest raised coral atolls in the world and home to the Aldabra giant tortoise.

“African sites are really in danger due to climate disturbances,” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center.

“We see typhoons, we see floods, we see erosion, we see fires. I would say that climate change is one of the main challenges facing world heritage now and in the future.”

Assomo said he was particularly concerned about sites like Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which is expected to lose its glaciers by 2040 and is experiencing an increase in bushfires.

Heritage, tourism at stake

As climate change threatens the future of Africa’s natural and cultural riches, jobs and tourism linked to heritage sites are also threatened.

This could spell disaster for attractions like Ghana’s slave forts, Namibia’s indigenous rock art and the wildebeest migration in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, which together draw throngs of visitors and millions of dollars in annual tourism revenue.

In Ghana, for example, castles have not only shaped the country’s history, but have also become pilgrimage sites for the African diaspora seeking to reconnect with their roots and honor their ancestors.

Events like Ghana’s “Year of Return” in 2019, to mark 400 years since the first recorded African slaves arrived in the Americas, saw record numbers of African Americans and European Africans visit the country for heritage tours.

In Namibia, tens of thousands of visitors arrive each year to see some of the largest rock art collections in Africa, generating much-needed income for local communities in the sparsely populated southern African nation.

Ancient rock paintings and engravings, including the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Twyfelfontein, were created by San hunter-gatherers long before Damara herders and European colonialists arrived.

But archaeologists fear that weather-related flash floods, dust, vegetation growth, fungi and desert animals seeking water near these sites pose threats to the survival of the art.

From Indonesia to Australia, archaeologists have found that the impacts of climate change, such as more variable temperatures, flooding and wildfires, are causing blistering, rockfalls and even explosions at important ancient art sites.

Independent Namibian archaeologist Alma Mekondjo Nankela fears the same will happen to her country’s rock art heritage.

“We can really see that the artwork is deteriorating and it’s deteriorating very quickly,” he said, adding that most of the factors that caused the deterioration were “probably related to climate change.”

He added that urgent funds and resources were needed to better understand and track long-term climate changes over the years.

In Kenya, one of the world’s most famous natural heritage attractions, the wildebeest mass migration is also at risk, say wildlife conservationists.

The migration, one of the greatest spectacles of animal movement on earth, sees hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle making their annual journey from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park across the border into the Maasai Mara in Kenya.

The sight draws hordes of safari-goers every year, eager to witness the iconic scenes of wildebeest running the gauntlet of hungry Nile crocodiles as they make their way across the Mara River.

Tourism, much of it centered around Maasai Mara safaris, is a key economic pillar for Kenya, providing employment for more than 2 million people and accounting for about 10% of the East African nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). .

But conservation experts say the great migration is threatened by increased droughts and flooding in the delicate Mara ecosystem, which is depriving wildebeests of grazing land.

This has affected the number of animals migrating to Kenya and the period for which they stay.

“The wildebeest migration happens later and they stay for a very short time,” said Yussuf Wato, wildlife program manager at conservation nonprofit WWF Kenya.

“And then because the rain has been slow to come to Mara, or the rain in the Serengeti is prolonged, they don’t come to Mara because they have enough pasture on the other side.”

More research, resources are needed

But despite the potentially far-reaching consequences of climate-related loss and damage to Africa’s heritage sites, the threats have received far less attention than the risks to other cultural and natural landmarks in wealthier nations.

One study estimates that only 1% of research on the impacts of climate change on heritage is related to Africa, despite the fact that the continent has been on the front lines of global warming for decades.

“We need more national archaeologists,” said David Pleurdeau, an assistant professor at France’s National Museum of Natural History in the human and environmental department, who leads an archaeological team in Namibia’s Erongo region. “We need more training for Namibian students, funding and for the Namibian Heritage Council to employ more archaeologists,” said Pleurdeau, who works with Namibian archaeologist Nankela.

Some countries, such as Ghana and Egypt, have invested heavily in building sea defense walls and breakwaters to protect their coastal sites.

But Simpson said such “hard protection” strategies often fail to take future sea levels into account and can distort the site’s natural ecological balance.

Hybrid protections that include natural infrastructure such as rock faces combined with restored mudflats, seagrass, or mangroves to slow wave action may be more effective.

It is also essential to improve governance around threatened sites and ensure that local communities are involved in conservation and protection efforts, he added.

Back at Fort Prinzenstein, the caretaker Akorli points to some words carved into the ruined back wall of one of the few remaining slave dungeons: “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero,” he says.

“Often the story can be distorted,” Akorli said. “Sites like these tell us the painful truth. That’s why we need to take care of them: we need to know what happened in the past, so we can learn in the future.”


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