African heritage sites are threatened as sea levels continue to rise

Sustainable Leaders | Africa

By Isabel Rowbotham, Co-Editor in Chief

Published May 11th, 2022

A study has identified 213 natural and 71 cultural African heritage sites at risk from coastal flooding and erosion. Iconic ruins, such as the Tipasa in Algeria and the North Sinai Archaeological Sites Zone in Egypt, could disappear completely underwater.

Our westernised view of the world has prevented us from fully appreciating and recognising African Historical Sites (AHS). Now, the precious ruins located in coastal areas, due to their past connection with trade and military strategy, are facing coastal flooding and erosion damage from rising sea levels.

The coastal ruins of Tipasa in Algeria are at risk of flooding. | Rab Rabah / Unsplash

By studying the ruins of Tipasa, located 70 kilometres west of the city of Algiers, three archaeological complexes were found, most notably the Royal Mauretanian Mausoleum. It was first constructed under Roman rule as a Carthaginian trading centre for trading with the indigenous population.

Nowadays, many sites like Tipasa are included in the UNESCO World Heritage List of 2020 and the Ramsar Sites Information Service. However, they still lack attention for conservation and many have been subject to looting, vegetation encroachment and lack of visitor management.

The study, published in February 2022 in the journal Nature Climate Change, covered an area of 512,757 square kilometres and mapped 284 historical sites for the analysis of coastal exposure. Simulations showed that coastal flooding could extend up to 200  kilometres landwards based on the 30 years’ worth (1980 to 2015) of data collected on storm surges.

As sea levels are projected to continue rising due to climate change, more AHS will become exposed to coastal hazards by 2050. The most exposed sites are located in North Africa, affecting Tunisia (which contains the most heritage sites, 34), Morocco, Senegal and Egypt.

‘As sea levels rise are projected to continue due to climate change, more AHS will become exposed to coastal hazards by 2050.’

The North Sinai Archaeological Sites Zone, on the Mediterranean coast in Egypt, stretches between the Suez Canal and Gaza. During the time of Egyptian pharaohs, it served as a highway for military expeditions to Canaan, Asia, Persia and Rome. The importance of this place for maritime exchange was documented by civilizations in the Nile Delta and even in Israel.

Oceanographic conditions on the Egypt-Canaan coastal margin shifted during the Bronze Age when water flow changed from west to an easterly flow. This change brought upon the regional shifts in precipitation patterns, causing increased aridity and a decrease in sea-level rise over the past 5000 years. Altogether, this contributed to the coarse sands of the Nile Delta being swept east, eroding the coastline and affecting a selection of coastal settlements.

Since then, sea levels continued to rise to levels seen in present-day, and areas that were once part of the shoreline are now submerged, positioning the archaeological sites at risk.

The map shows the coast of North Sinai, Egypt, depicting how the coastline has become eroded. Years of currents carrying coarse sands and sediments from the Nile Delta (far left) out into the Mediterranean Sea, then flowing easterly (white arrows), has deteriorated the North Sinai coastline all the way to the coast of Israel. The ruins of the Qasrawet Archeological Site are one of many African Historical Sites that are at high risk of erosion due to their geographical location near this eroded coastline. | E.D. Oren (2018) / Remote Sensing.

Seven of Tunisia’s AHS may be exposed to a 100-year extreme event—this refers to the risk of a once in a century coastal flooding and erosion event. One example may be the Minoan eruption at Santorini, north of Crete, which affected the North Sinai coastline 5000 years ago. While volcanic eruptions may pose a risk, flooding will likely damage these sites irreversibly and, in the most severe cases, completely submerge them underwater.

The study states that the number of affected sites will triple based on moderate anthropogenic emissions linked to the increase in sea-level rise. The damage could reach 191 sites by 2050 and in a high-emission scenario, seven more sites will be affected; most of which are located in North Africa.

‘The study states that the number of sites will triple based on moderate anthropogenic emissions linked to the increase in sea-level rise.’

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could help protect 21% to 25% of the most affected sites. Another way to support these sites is by the construction of coastal defences, as was the case for one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Alexandria.

Here, the Qaitbay Citadel, where the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria once towered over the Egyptian seaport, had already started to show signs of damage from severe flooding. Fortunately, since receiving coastal protection is now projected to experience minimal risk.

The Qaitbay Citadel in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, has been protected against flooding. | Farah Samy / Unsplash

However, other sites, such as the Chat Tboul and Parc National du Diawling in Mauritania or Densu Delta Ramsar site in Ghana, continue to be at risk despite restoration efforts. The present-day risk due to flooding is approximately 45%, but by the year 2100, the sites may be completely flooded without further investment into restoration projects.

Additionally, the construction of dams and canals near protected sites continues to contribute to ocean acidification and deforestation that causes coastline and erosion changes, with further ecological consequences difficult to predict.

Many of the AHS evaluated lacked the protection standards that need to be implemented in order to reduce the risk of one in a 100-year extreme event. Newly enforced coastal protections, such as those protecting the site of Alexandria, should prompt the question: will they withstand the projected increase in sea level rise with increasing high rates of GHG emissions?

Many AHS and related sites serve as a ‘living heritage’ that reflects Africa's uniqueness as the world’s most culturally diverse place. One of the reasons we may not recognise these sites as easily as the Roman Colosseum, for example, is due to our failure to recognise African architecture outside of western standards. In light of the risk of losing them, we must learn to recognise African architecture and cultural structure now before they get swept away by the incoming wave of climate change.

Featured Image: Nour Abdelatif | Wikimedia Commons

Egyptian Antiquities Organization (1994) ‘North Sinai archaeological Sites Zone,’ UNESCO. Available at: [Accessed on April 17th, 2022]

Kamal I., Fekri M, Abou El-Magd I. and Soliman N. (2021) Mapping the impacts of projected sea-level rise on Cultural heritage sites in Egypt: Case study (Alexandria), Journal of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotels-University of Sadat City. Volume 5, Issue ½, pages 1-20.

Stanley J-D. (2002) ‘Egypt and the Levant: Configuration of the Egypt-to-Canaan Coastal Margin and North Sinai Byway in the Bronze Age,’ Smithsonian Institute. Available at: [Accessed on April 17th, 2022]

Stewart C, Oren ED, Cohen-Sasson E. (2018) Satellite Remote Sensing Analysis of the Qasrawet Archaeological Site in North Sinai. Remote Sensing. Volume 10, Issue 7, page 1090.

Vousdoukas M.I., Clarke J., Ranasinghe R. et al. (2022) African heritage sites threatened as sea-level rise accelerates. Nat. Clim. Chang. Volume 12, pages 256–262.

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