Mombasa is known all over the world as a city of sun-kissed beaches and luxurious hotels packed with tourists having the time of their lives.
But in just 20 years, this world-renowned tourist haven may become an island of misery in which vast stretches of land are submerged in sea.
Salinity will make the water unfit for human consumption, it is feared, and local agriculture will collapse due to excess salts in the soil.
That is the grim projection of scientists who are now warning that authorities must take urgent steps to save the coastal city from collapsing under the weight of the effects of global warming.
“We are already seeing adverse climate change signals. Some hotels at the South Coast are building sea walls to deal with waves, something we have not seen before,” says Dr Samuel Mariga, assistant director in charge of climate change at the Kenya Meteorological Department. “All our models indicate that temperatures will continue going up and we must put in place adaptation and mitigation measures to deal with the problem.”
Dr Mariga’s views tally with those presented in a new book focusing on how cities can best cope with effects of changing climactic conditions.
The book, "Adapting Cities to Climate Change", highlights challenges facing Mombasa, Dhaka, Cotonou, Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Durban.
It is edited by experts from the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development and was released two weeks ago.
It warns that Mombasa, home to approximately 800,000 people, is especially vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels due to its low altitude, and high temperature and humidity.
Mombasa is on the coastal plain, only about 45 metres above sea level.
The scientists predict that unless urgent mitigation measures are taken, a sea-level rise of just 0.3 metres will see 17 per cent of Mombasa (4,600 hectares) submerged.
They warn that large areas of the island will be rendered uninhabitable and unsuitable for agriculture due to “salt stress” and predict frequent flooding.
“Sandy beaches and other features, including historical and cultural monuments such as Fort Jesus, several beach hotels, industries, the ship-docking ports and human settlements could be negatively affected by sea-level rise,” says the report.
“Other potential impacts of sea-level rise that could affect Mombasa (are) increased coastal storm damage and flooding; sea-shore erosion... contributing to loss of biodiversity, fisheries and recreational opportunities.”
The Kenyan section of the book was authored by Cynthia Brenda Awuor, a research fellow on climate change at African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS), Nairobi, Victor Ayo Orindi, a researcher at the International Development Research Centre, and Andrew Ochieng Adwera, a former researcher at ACTS who is currently a graduate student in the UK.
The scientists do not offer a precise timeline when the worst of these effects will take hold.
But, according to the Kenya Meteorological Department, some of the dramatic changes will be seen in as few as 20 years.
According to the new book, Mombasa faces significant challenges due to the failure to enforce physical planning by-laws down the years, which has resulted in mushrooming of illegal structures and blocking of access roads.
It calls for swift action to ensure that the city is spared the worst effects of climate change, due to its economic and strategic importance.
Mombasa town clerk Tubmun Otieno told the Sunday Nation on Saturday a number of steps hade been taken to open blocked drainage pipes, which have long been blamed for floods in the area.
“It is true that the drainage system in Mombasa collapsed a long time ago. But we have recently taken a number of measures to address this. We have unclogged drainage pipes. It rained last night (Friday) but if you come to Mombasa, you will not see stagnant water,” he said.
Mr Otieno said the council was working with the urban planning department of the ministry of local government to develop a masterplan to improve the town’s drainage system.
But the town clerk admitted the city does not have a climate change policy or a budget for mitigation measures.
He said a climate change strategy should be formulated at the national level and then implemented in partnership with local authorities.
Dr Mariga shared those sentiments.
Scientists say human activities such as driving cars and using coal-powered plants to derive electricity contribute to global warming because they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases act like a blanket which traps heat that would have normally exited into outer space, contributing to rising temperatures on earth.
The effect of the accompanying climate change is particularly acute in coastal areas, because of the rise in sea levels triggered, scientists say, by the melting of continental ice sheets and thermal expansion of water.
However, this is a gradual process, estimated to be happening at the rate of a few millimetres a year. Despite this slow rise, scientists project that the long-term impact may see entire islands such as Zanzibar disappear completely in 100 years.
Mombasa is the main sea port serving Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Southern Sudan and parts of Tanzania.
It is also one of the main magnets for tourists choosing to spend their holidays in the country. Mr Khalid Salim, head of public relations and corporate affairs at the Kenya Tourist Board (KTB), says 65 per cent of tourists visiting Kenya go to the Coast.
He said KTB was working with other government agencies to ensure steps are taken to preserve the city.
The book proposes a broad range of measures to help cushion Mombasa against the worst effects of the rise in sea level.
It urges authorities to seek a solution to the problem of land ownership, arguing the large number of squatters makes it difficult to have planned settlements and provide basic services to reduce the risk of flooding.
The authorities should repossess all public utility land and beach access roads that have been allocated to private developers, the scientists recommend.
In addition, they should construct and maintain drainage facilities in estates in low-lying areas and with poor water seepage to reduce prolonged flooding and its resultant side effects.
The building code in the area, say the scientists, should also be reviewed to promote “building standards that can accommodate future climatic conditions such as high temperatures, humidity and flooding”.
“For example, it would be useful to construct buildings with strong, unoccupied open spaces on the ground floor; these could avert damage and loss of property and life during floods. Also, buildings could be designed and constructed in ways that promote natural air circulation and cooling to reduce temperatures and high humidity indoors,” the scientists say.
Other measures urged are reforestation to ensure a healthy sea wall and early warning systems for climate-related disasters.
The Kenyan chapter primarily focused on Mombasa city’s four divisions, Mombasa Island, Kisauni, Likoni and Changamwe.
Dr Mariga says the effects of climate change will be felt acutely not only in the island but further inland. He says measures should be taken to help locals adapt to changes that will affect agriculture, considering many areas at the Coast already experience low productivity.
“Considering some agricultural land will be covered by water, there should be an effort to help people grow salt tolerant crops and also engage in activities such as fishing,” he says.