Mombasa – a city under the sea?

Mombasa is known as a city of sun-kissed beaches, luxurious hotels packed with tourists and crazy New Year’s Eve parties. Recent terrorist threats have begun to change this idyllic picture. Last weekend some tour operators had to evacuate hundreds of tourists and cancel flights to Mombasa.

But the government has other things to worry about. Part of Mombasa is at risk of sinking, something Environment PS Richard Lesiyampe has publicly acknowledged.

It’s well known that sea-level rise and climate change are expected to increase the frequency of flooding and inundation of coastal areas. An estimated 30 percent of Africa’s coastal infrastructure could be lost to rising seas by 2080, according to a UN report. And Mombasa, inhabited by more than 1 million people and considered the largest seaport in East Africa, is one of the cities most threatened by the irreversible consequences of climate change.

It’s estimated that about 17 percent of Mombasa, or 4,600 hectares of land area, including the World Heritage Site of Fort Jesus, will be submerged by a sea-level rise of only 0.3 metres, as the Climate change and coastal cities report states. Among many associated side effects, is that this sea-level rise will make the peri-urban space — where farming is the basis of the economy — agriculturally unsuitable due to salt stress, reducing the capacity to grow certain crops and contributing to malnutrition in the region. The salt from seawater could also contaminate drinking water and increase the risk of some diseases like diarrhea or typhoid.

Built on low-lying ground, much of Mombasa is close to sea-level. The effects of extreme rains combined with the urbanization the city has experienced were seen in 2006. Mombasa was hit by devastating floods that led to large economic losses. Infrastructure and fishing vessels were damaged, people were threatened by cholera and water sources were contaminated, as explained in the book Adapting Cities to Climate Change.

To minimize the city’s vulnerability, Mombasa has to work both to adapt to climate change and to mitigate its effects. The Climate change and coastal cities report offers some choices to alleviate the effects of climate change. Planning an irrigation system to deviate water to the interior areas, implementing systems to turn rainwater into drinking water, building dams and protecting the coastline by banning construction developments are some of the recommendations given by experts.

Giving citizens necessary information about how to respond to extreme weather events and flooding is as important as government action on infrastructure construction and modification of coastal laws. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is planning programs to offer “practical guidelines to help students and teachers survive disasters, training them in understanding and recognizing early warning signs, and preparing them with knowledge and skills to survive the onset of emergencies such as flooding”, as the Climate Change in Kenya: focus on children report documents.

Gemma Solés i Coll holds an M.A. in Social Science of Development South of the Sahara (URV) and graduated in Philosophy (UB). She specializes in artistic and cultural trends and urban dynamics in Africa. She serves as chief editor for the music and performing arts section of Spanish online magazine WIRIKO, of which she is the founder.


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