The Kisima Project: Historic and future well management on Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania

Project Description

This study will examine stone-lined wells on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kilwa Kisiwani, an island in southern Tanzania, by examining historical freshwater management techniques. It will investigate if reduced availability to fresh water from wells (kisima means well in Swahili) contributed to the decline of the maritime city state at different stages of its history, and how water management can alleviate present and future water shortages and allow development of local industry. Kilwa was particularly celebrated in the late medieval period when it controlled the gold trade from the port of Sofala in modern Mozambique and dominated a large part of the Swahili coast. Today, the island has the remains of at least 17 stone wells, most of which are abandoned and silted up with infill, four are too salty to drink from and three are still in use today though still have higher levels of salinity than that drunk on the mainland. Previous well excavations on Kilwa Kisiwani have shown the water table to be up to 2m lower in the 20th century than when the wells were in use in the 14th century. Sixteenth-century Portuguese documents suggest Kilwa had a population of c. 4000, but by the 19th century, this had declined to c. 1000 according to Admiralty observations. There have been political struggles but if the island’s resources including freshwater could no longer sustain the grand lifestyle of the sultan in the palaces, pilgrims to the Great Mosque and seafaring traders arriving with the monsoons the value of the port as a trading centre would have declined. This project is multidisciplinary including archaeologists and environmental scientists to determine the present and past exploitation of groundwater found in wells.


Location: Tanzania

PI: Elgidius B. Ichumbaki (University of Dar es Salaam)

Co-Is: Edward Pollard (University of Dar es Salaam), Jean-Christophe Comte (University of Aberdeen)

Partners: University of Dar es Salaam, University of Aberdeen, The Department of Antiquities Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, WAUMAKI Kisiwani

Size: Large