Ironically, human culture and behaviours are driving outcomes

By Matthew Parkes: Political Columnist

Awarding a landmark the status of ‘World Heritage Site’ designates it as holding a universal value that deserves to be preserved for all of humanity and for future generations. However, with a third of all natural World Heritage sites now threatened by climate change and several others at risk from the perils of armed conflict, how effective will UNESCO’s famous scheme be?

A UN advisory body has warned that 33% of natural world heritage sites are threatened by climate change, including the Great Barrier Reef which has been placed into the ‘critical’ category. There are also 53 sites which are classed as being in ‘Danger’, these landmarks are at the mercy of pillaging, war, natural hazards, commercial development, and other issues.

Ongoing Conflicts

Through wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere, landmarks of cultural value have been severely damaged despite plees from UNESCO’s secretary general. For instance, Palmyra in Syria was partially destroyed by ISIS between 2015 and 2017. In Yemen, the Old Walled City of Shibam faces destruction due to abnormal rainfall and flooding. The finance needed to regularly maintain the mud-brick architecture of the city and the specialist manpower required has been disrupted by the ongoing civil war in the country. It was reported in August that four of the towers have been destroyed.

Other dangers that these landmarks face also include urban development concerns. In the United Kingdom, six areas in the ‘maritime mercantile city’ of Liverpool were recognised as a World Heritage Site.

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However, following a ‘Liverpool Waters’ 2012 redevelopment proposal  which threatened to “fragment and isolate the different dock areas visually”, UNESCO placed the site on the ‘World Heritage Sites in Danger’ list.

The historic centre of Vienna is facing a similar situation, with planned high rise buildings in the city centre threatening the universal value of the site.

By inscribing these sites on the ‘In Danger’ list, UNESCO can organise and provide support for the conversation of these landmarks. For instance, in response to the challenges faced by the ancient cities of Yemen, the UN organisation released funds to support local organisations to assess the damage and help preserve the historic structures.

Indeed, some places have been awarded the prestigious status only to be immediately added to the ‘In Danger’ category to help raise awareness for the conservation needs of the landmark. This is evident with the Nan Madol endangered area in East Micronesia which faces an existential crisis due to overgrowing Mangroves and siltation of nearby canals. It was added to both lists in 2016 and as a result the US ambassador’s fund provided financial support for its conservation.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites provide support for endangered areas of universal value but it can’t enforce everyone to respect them. In many areas where population is expanding or the urban landscape is changing it appears that the economic needs of its population outweigh the benefits of having a World Heritage Site (demonstrated by Liverpool’s willingness to go ahead with the redevelopment). Which again poses the question; how sacrosanct are these sites?