Climate Change is Threatening Important African Coastal Sites

The Door of No Return has been worn to a rusty-hued finish by the chainsed feet who shuffled through it in search of waiting ships.

Climate Change is Threatening Important African Coastal Sites

The Door of No Return has been worn to a rusty-hued finish by the chainsed feet who shuffled through it in search of waiting ships. Senegal's Island of Goree served as a departure point for millions of Atlantic slave traders from the 15th to 19th centuries. The infamous House of Slaves is located inside the Door of No Return. Outside, cobbled streets lead to elegant French colonial buildings which housed slavers as well as free Europeans.

The Island of Goree, located just off the coast from Dakar, Senegal's capital is small. It measures only 28 hectares and is roughly the same size as 28 baseball fields. The island is a huge responsibility. Eloi Coly, chief curator of the House of Slaves, said that the House of Slaves serves as a reminder of how fragile our freedom is.

Climate change could put at risk this important heritage site as well as the lessons it teaches. Scientists recently assessed the vulnerability to 284 heritage sites on Africa's 300, coastline. These sites, which include the Island of Goree contain irreplaceable cultural and ecological, historical, socio-economic, and economic characteristics. This study, which is one of few that assesses climate risk to African heritage sites, shows that at least 56 sites are at risk of extreme coastal events like flooding and erosion. If climate change continues unabated, that number will increase to nearly 200.

Nicholas Simpson, a climate researcher from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, says that climate change is a real threat to our heritage. It's not far-off.

Simpson started the work after he became the lead author of the Africa chapter of the Sixth Assessment Report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He noticed a worrying gap in the scientific data. He says, "We were somewhat shocked that there wasn't a quantitative assessment of climate risks to African heritage and Indigenous knowledge system."

Simpson and his colleagues analysed the climate risk to coastal African heritage site that is recognized or under consideration by UNESCO World Heritage Centre, and Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance.

As diverse as Africa, the range of heritage sites that are already in danger is impressive. These include the famous Tipasa ruins in Algeria. The extraordinary archaeological complex, once a powerful coastal port of trade and a glimpse into Punic or Roman civilizations, is now gone. From roughly 2,600 to 1,400 Years ago, different waves of colonization visited the site.

Another example is the North Sinai Archaeological Sites Zone, Egypt. This coastal strip was home to the military expeditions of the Egyptian pharaohs to Canaan, Asia and was also used by invaders Persians, Greeks and Romans. From predynastic times, the site connected Egypt and Canaan.

The Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles, is also listed. It is one of the most important atolls anywhere in the world. Also, the Saloum Delta, another Senegalese location, was designated a World Heritage Site. This site was chosen for its unique coastal lifestyle, which evolved over at least 2,000 year ago in harmony with the fragile natural environment.

David Stehl is the program specialist at UNESCO's Africa Unit. He says heritage sites are vulnerable to multiple weather hazards, fire, and changes in the built environment and the surrounding environment. He does however agree that climate change is a serious concern.

The Island of Goree’s House of Slaves, compared to other sites in the study is less vulnerable to sea level rise or erosion. Coly, curator of the site, said that it is still at risk. There are measures in place to protect it from the loss of its coastline. More are being planned under the West Africa Coastal Areas Management Program.

Coly states that each generation has an obligation to learn from the past and pass on that knowledge to the next generation. This includes information about slavery, the slave trade and violations of human rights which occurred on the Island of Goree. "We need the [House of Slaves] continue to play this function."

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