- Dozens of African monuments are threatened by climate impacts.
- The ruins of Carthage and Sabratha, as well as Mount Kilimanjaro, are threatened.
- Lack of funding, research hampers conservation efforts.
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From the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro to the ruins of the ancient Tunisian city of Carthage and the Senegalese slave island of Gorée, Africa is full of iconic cultural and natural heritage sites.
But the impacts of climate change, from rising temperatures to worsening floods, now threaten to doom these African monuments and dozens more in the history books.
As wealthy countries scramble to protect their cultural monuments from extreme weather and rising seas, African countries face additional hurdles such as funding shortages and a shortage of archaeological expertise, advocates say. environment and researchers.
“These sites are places we learned about in school – they are our identity and our history. They are irreplaceable. If we lose them, we will never get them back,” said Nick Simpson, research associate at the African Initiative for Climate and Development at the University of Cape Town.
“Africa has already suffered tremendous loss and damage from human-induced climate change: loss of biodiversity, water shortages, loss of food, loss of life and reduced economic growth. We cannot allow us to also lose our heritage.”
Some historical monuments have already succumbed.
For visitors to the historic colonial slave forts scattered along the West African coastline, an important ritual is to walk through the “gate of no return” – an age-old gate that leads directly from the citadel to the shore. .
The custom pays tribute to the millions of Africans who were forcibly driven from their homeland during the transatlantic slave trade, retracing their final steps as they were led from dungeons through the doorway of slave ships – never to return .
But at the 18th century Danish slave post in Ghana, Fort Prinzenstein, the original metal gate and an adjoining passageway are now missing.
“The main ‘gate of no return’ was swept away by tidal waves a long time ago,” said James Ocloo Akorli, custodian 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 impacts such as droughts and floods, highlighting the need for countries to invest in projects that protect infrastructure and improve resilience.
At the COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt, which kicked off on Sunday, world leaders will debate how much financial aid rich countries should provide to developing countries to help them cope with the effects of global warming. climatic.
Typhoons, floods and erosion
There is no comprehensive data on the total number of African heritage sites at risk, but research co-led by Simpson on coastal sites found that 56 sites are already facing flooding and erosion exacerbated by the sea level rise.
By 2050, if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, that 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 imposing ruins of the Numidian-Roman port of Sabratha in Libya, the ancient Punic-Roman trading post of Tipasa in Algeria and archaeological sites in Egypt’s North Sinai, according to the study.
The island of Kunta Kinteh in The Gambia and the Togolese village of Aneho-Glidji – both linked to the history of the slave trade in Africa – are also under threat, he added.
A wide range of sites of outstanding natural value are also extremely vulnerable as higher temperatures melt glaciers, raising sea levels and leading to increased coastal erosion.
These include rich biodiversity hotspots such as the Curral Velho wetland in Cape Verde 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, really in danger because of climate change,” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
“We see typhoons, we see floods, we see erosion, we see fires. I would say climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing World Heritage today – and in the future. .”
Assomo said he was particularly concerned about sites such as Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, which is set to lose its glaciers by 2040 and is experiencing an increase in wildfires.
Heritage, tourism at stake
As climate change threatens the future of Africa’s natural and cultural wealth, jobs and tourism linked to heritage sites are also at risk.
This could spell disaster for attractions such as Ghana’s slave forts, Namibia’s indigenous rock art and Kenya’s Maasai Mara wildebeest migration, which together draw crowds of visitors and millions of dollars in revenue. annual tourist.
In Ghana, for example, castles have not only shaped the country’s history, but have also become places of pilgrimage for the African diaspora seeking to reconnect with their roots and honor their ancestors.
Events such as Ghana’s ‘Year of Return’ in 2019, to mark 400 years since the arrival of the first registered African slaves 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 every year to see some of Africa’s greatest rock art collections, generating much needed income for local communities in the sparsely populated southern African country.
Ancient rock paintings and carvings, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Twyfelfontein, were created by San hunter-gatherers long before the arrival of Damara herders and European colonialists.
But archaeologists fear that climate-related flash floods, dust, vegetation growth, fungi and desert animals seeking water near these sites could threaten the art’s survival.
From Indonesia to Australia, archaeologists have found that the impacts of climate change, such as more variable temperatures, flooding and wildfires, are causing rocks to blister, spall and even explode on important sites of ancient art.
Independent Namibian archaeologist Alma Mekondjo Nankela fears the same lies for his country’s rock art heritage.
“We can really see that the artwork is deteriorating and it’s actually deteriorating very quickly,” she said, adding that most of the factors causing the deterioration were “probably related to change. climatic”.
She added that urgent funding and resources were needed to better understand and track long-term climate change over time.
In Kenya, one of the world’s most famous natural heritage attractions – the wildebeest migration – is also under threat, wildlife advocates say.
The migration, one of the greatest shows of animal movement on earth, sees hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle making their annual trek from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park across the border to the Maasai Mara in Kenya.
The sight attracts hordes of safari-goers every year, eager to witness the iconic scenes of wildebeest running the gauntlet of hungry Nile crocodiles as they cross the Mara River.
Tourism – largely centered on Maasai Mara safaris – is a key economic mainstay for Kenya, providing jobs for more than 2 million people and accounting for around 10% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). East Africa.
But conservation experts say the great migration is under threat due to increased droughts and flooding in the delicate Mara ecosystem, which deprives the wildebeest of grazing land.
This has affected the number of animals migrating to Kenya and the length of their stay.
“The wildebeest migration happens later and they stay for a very short time,” said Yussuf Wato, wildlife program manager at nonprofit WWF Kenya.
“And then because the rain has been slow to come to the Mara, or the rainfall in the Serengeti is prolonged, they don’t come to the Mara because they have enough pasture on the other side.”
More research, resources needed
But despite the potentially far-reaching consequences of climate-related loss and damage to African heritage sites, the threats have attracted far less attention than the risks to other cultural and natural sites in wealthier countries.
A study estimates that only 1% of research on the impacts of climate change on heritage is related to Africa, despite the continent being on the front lines of global warming for decades.
“We need more national archaeologists,” said David Pleurdeau, assistant professor at France’s National Museum of Natural History in the department of man and the environment, leading an archaeological team in the Erongo region in Namibia. “We need more training for Namibian students, funding, and for the Namibian Heritage Board to employ more archaeologists,” said Pleurdeau, who works with Namibian archaeologist Nankela.
Some countries like Ghana and Egypt have made large investments in the construction of sea defense walls and groynes to protect their coastal sites.
But Simpson said such “hard protection” strategies often don’t take into account future sea levels and can distort the site’s natural ecological balance.
Hybrid protections that include natural infrastructure such as rock faces associated with salt marshes, seagrass beds or restored mangroves to slow wave action, may be more effective.
It is also essential to improve governance around endangered sites and ensure that local communities are involved in preservation and protection efforts, he added.
Back at Fort Prinzenstein, Warden Akorli points to a few words carved into the dilapidated back wall of one of the few remaining slave dungeons: “Until the lion has his historian, the hunter will always be a hero,” it read.
“A lot of times history can be twisted,” 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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