In the fall of 2020, Sudan was hit by its worst flooding in decades. Weeks of torrential downpours, and the resulting rise in level of the river Nile, have caused deaths, displacement, and massive destructions to key infrastructure and livelihoods across the country. Over 120 people lost their lives and another 860,000 people were critically affected, according to the Sudan Government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission.
Numerous archeological sites throughout the country have been impacted by the disastrous floods, as ancient Sudanese civilizations were mostly located near the Nile. Heavy water infiltrations have been recorded, among others, at two sites inscribed on the World Heritage List: the ‘Archaeological Sites of the Island of Meroe’, at the heartland of the Kingdom of Kush, a major power from the 8th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D, and ‘Gebel Barkal and the Sites of the Napatan Region’, which are outstanding testimonies to the Napatan (900 to 270 B.C.) and Meroitic (270 B.C. to 350 A.D.) cultures.
Following a request of support from the Sudanese authorities, UNESCO, through its Heritage Emergency Fund[i], organized an emergency assessment mission to the affected sites from 2 to 17 November 2020. The mission, composed of four experts in geology, hydrology and archaeology and restoration, as well as a representative of the UNESCO Office in Khartoum, visited sites and museums in the River Nile State, the Northern State and the Khartoum State, where meetings with national and local stakeholders were also organized.
Among the main findings, contained in the report released on 8 December 2020, water infiltration at a number of sites loosened their sandstone foundation and may in the future result in collapse if not addressed; furthermore, stagnant water (up to a height of 38 cm) led to loss of colour in the painted surfaces of buildings and statues. Issues related to the overall management framework were also identified.
“Beyond the damage that we could identify, and the emergency measures that we proposed for the safeguarding of these unique sites, we recommended the setting up of an overall disaster risk management policy, and its articulation in emergency preparedness plans and protocols for individual sites” said Professor George Okello Abungu, leader of the mission.
The mission provided a comprehensive set of costed recommendations, ranging from the setting up of flood protection and drainage systems, to sand removal interventions, fencing, surface cleaning, surveying and documentation. Priorities were set in terms of the development of a Master plan for the Royal City at Meroe and protection measures to counter the rising ground water level at the pyramids in Nuri.
In the immediate aftermath of the mission, a research team focusing on water impact on archeological sites and an operational team for the implementation of urgent safeguarding measures were set up by national authorities.
[i] The following donors generously contributed to the Heritage Emergency Fund: the Qatar Fund for Development, the Kingdom of Norway, the Government of Canada, ANA Holdings INC., the Principality of Monaco, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Republic of Estonia, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the Slovak Republic, the Principality of Andorra, and the Republic of Serbia.