Climate Change Threatens Kenya’s Historical Sites in Coastal Region

The sea wall was built to protect the Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi. Historical sites along Kenya’s coastline are being threatened by climate-change-induced weather conditions. Credit: Diana Wanyonyi/IPS

The sea wall was built to protect the Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi. Historical sites along Kenya’s coastline are being threatened by climate-change-induced weather conditions. Credit: Diana Wanyonyi/IPS

By Diana Wanyonyi
MOMBASA, May 9 2023 – Along coastal Kenya, historical sites and monuments are threatened due to the impacts of climate change—structures along the Indian Ocean are falling to ruin or collapsing into the ocean because of high tides.

One threatened historical site was the Portuguese-built Fort Jesus, located on Mombasa Island. In 2011, the fort was declared a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, as one of the most outstanding and well-preserved examples of Portuguese military fortifications. But unfortunately, the fort, which has been standing tall for more than 500 years, was threatened by high tides and strong winds from the Indian Ocean, which was eroding its massive rock foundation.

Lucky three years ago, Fort Jesus was secured from erosion caused by strong tides after the government, in collaboration with National Museums of Kenya, constructed a seawall on the eastern side of the Fort that faces the Indian Ocean.

Fatma Twahir, the principal curator of Fort Jesus, says that before the construction of the seawall, the coral base of Fort Jesus was badly eroded.

“The base of Fort Jesus was badly damaged, and there were worries that it would lose stability. We brought in engineers who investigated, and they confirmed our fears saying that if we did not act fast, the Fort might collapse into the Indian Ocean. We informed the national government, and it stepped in. The government gave us 497 million Kenyan shillings (about USD 3,6 million) for the contractor to build a sea wall; the construction commenced in June 2017 and ended in February 2019,” Twahir said.

One of the issues Kenya’s coastal region experiences is what’s known as the India Ocean Dipole, says Jennifer Fitchett, Associate Professor of Physical Geography, University of the Witwatersrand, in an article in The Conversation. This causes heavy rainfall. She notes that “under climate change, the frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events is increasing. We can therefore expect to experience strong 2°C Indian Ocean Dipoles more often in the years and decades to come.”

US Aid notes too that “most of the country’s coast is low-lying, with coastal plains, islands, beaches, wetlands, and estuaries at risk from sea level rise. A sea level rise of 30 cm is estimated to threaten 17 percent (4,600 hectares) of Mombasa with inundation.”

Twenty kilometres from Mombasa, north of Mtwapa Creek in Kilifi County, are the Jumba la Mtwana ruins. Jumba la Mtwana is a Swahili word meaning the ‘large house of the slave’. Although there are no written historical records of the ruins, the ceramic evidence during excavations showed that the town had been built in the 14th century and became a significant slave port before it was abandoned in the early 15th century.

The ruins, near the Indian Ocean, include a tomb that is believed to be that of one of the sultans who ruled the area. Also, four mosques and four houses have survived the impact of climate change and are still in good condition. The inhabitants of the Jumba ruins were mainly Muslims, as evidenced by the number of ruined mosques.

The mosques are still used for prayers by fishers, locals, and visitors.

An Arabic inscription on the column adjacent to the tomb says, “Every Soul Shall Taste Death.”

Jumba Ruins are also affected by climate change as many of the building structures have been damaged by either strong winds or eroded by the encroaching ocean tides, impacting the ruins’ coral walls.

Chengo Kalume is a resident and a fisher who has been working in the area for more than 25 years. He says strong ocean tides have destroyed a large portion of the ruins. Thirty years ago, when he was young, the ruins were in good condition.

“While I was growing up, this ruin was not damaged, and the ocean tide was not reaching near it, but when the temperatures started changing, the ocean tides were becoming stronger and stronger ocean waves hit hard on the shoreline, the waters started rising, and it started reaching the structures of the ruins. That is when the walls started breaking and crumbling,” he lamented.

He worries that if urgent action isn’t taken, the ruins will be swept away and forgotten. “I am worried that if the ruin is not preserved early, then future generations will not be able to see them; they will only be reading about it through the books,” said Kalume.

For Kalume, unpredictable ocean storms and strong winds made him quit his fishing career, making him prone to accidents such as his boat capsizing in inclement weather. Also, a change in weather in the ocean contributed to the disappearance of some fish species.

He remembers, “On several occasions, while I was going fishing, the weather was calm and promising all of a sudden while in the deep sea, the ocean waves changed and became stronger and stronger, this weakened our fishing vessel, and also this made some fish disappear such as barracuda, tuna and parrot fish. I always came back to the shore with a small catch.”

However, building sea walls is not an option for this area.

Hashim Mzomba, the curator-in-charge of Jumba la Mtwana Ruins, says the shoreline provides a good nesting place for sea turtles.

“Because this shoreline is a sea turtle’s breeding nest, we prefer to plant trees that will be able to break the winds. This will also reduce the impact of strong ocean tides.”

The Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi, some 120 kilometres northeast of Mombasa, was also in a state of disrepair following the weakening of its coral rock base caused by strong ocean tides. The pillar is one of the oldest remaining monuments in Africa and was built in 1498 by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama as a sign of appreciation for the welcome the Sultan of Malindi gave him.

“Climate change weakened the pillar for a long time; two years ago, the government stepped in and constructed a sea wall around the pillar,” said Omar Abdulrahim Abdallah, principal curator of Vasco Da Gama pillar.
IPS UN Bureau Report


!function(d,s,id){var js,fjs=d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0],p=/^http:/.test(d.location)?’http’:’https’;if(!d.getElementById(id)){js=d.createElement(s);;js.src=p+’://’;fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js,fjs);}}(document, ‘script’, ‘twitter-wjs’);