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African heritage sites threatened by flooding

African heritage sites are at risk because of coastal flooding and erosion as sea levels rise at an accelerated pace.

A global team of climate risk and heritage experts, including Dr. Nicholas Simpson from the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI), has provided the first comprehensive assessment of exposure of African cultural and natural heritage sites to extreme sea levels and erosion associated with accelerated rising sea level.

African heritage sites
Cardo Maximus, part of World Heritage Site Tipasa, Algeria, is projected to be at risk. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jane Chick.

The team invested for a year in identifying and mapping the physical boundary of 284 African coastal heritage sites. They then modeled the exposure of each site at future global warming scenarios.

They found 56 sites that are at risk from a 1-in-100-year extreme sea-level event including the iconic ruins of Tipasa, Algeria, and the North Sinai archaeological Sites Zone in Egypt.

According to the paper “African heritage sites threatened as sea-level rise accelerates,” by 2050, the number of exposed sites is projected to more than triple, reaching almost 200.

African heritage sites along the coasts are threatened

At least 151 natural and 40 cultural sites will be exposed to the 100-year event from 2050 onwards, regardless of the warming scenario. The authors explained that several countries have projected that all their coastal heritage sites will be exposed to the 100-year coastal extreme event by the end of the century, regardless of the scenario. This includes Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Western Sahara, Libya, Mozambique, Mauritania, and Namibia.

Under the worst-case scenario, it also is true for Côte d’Ivoire, Cabo Verde, Sudan, and Tanzania.

The authors are concerned because they state that none of these countries currently demonstrate adequate management or adaptive capacity to anticipate or establish heritage protections commensurate with the severity of these hazards.

Small island heritage sites are especially at risk. For example, Aldabra Atoll, the world’s second-largest coral atoll, and Kunta Kinteh Island, Gambia, both could see significant amounts of their extent exposed by 2100 under high emissions raising questions of their survivability under climate change.

The results highlight the importance of climate change adaptation and mitigation responses to protect and reduce the exposure of these iconic heritage sites. The authors explained that if climate change mitigation successfully reduces greenhouse gas emissions from a high-emissions pathway to a moderate emissions pathway, by 2050 the number of highly exposed sites can be reduced by 25 percent.

The study helps prioritize at-risk sites and highlights the need for immediate protective action for them. Aid is needed to improve governance and management approaches, provide site-specific vulnerability assessments, monitor exposure, and devise protection strategies, including ecosystem-based adaptation.

The study’s authors are Michalis I. Vousdoukas, Joanne Clarke, Roshanka Ranasinghe, Lena Reimann, Nadia Khalaf, Trang Minh Duong, Birgitt Ouweneel, Salma Sabour, Carley E. Iles, Christopher H. Trisos, Luc Feyen, Lorenzo Mentaschi, and Nicholas P. Simpson.

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