UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

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Special Issue

Natural Sites Under Pressure
The snow cover on the Himalayas has been reduced by 30% in 30 years
© UNESCO/J.M. Gassend
The effects of climate change are already being observed on several World Heritage sites. Some environmentalists are calling for them to be placed on the endangered list.
From corals that are bleached due to a rise in water temperature, to glacier caps that are shrinking more and more each year, not to mention species that are becoming increasingly rare such as snow leopards, marine turtles or the manatee: the eff ects of global warming on the environment are now known. World Heritage sites, especially the natural ones, have obviously not been spared from this global phenomenon.

Some environmentalists have taken the next logical step and requested that certain sites be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. In November 2004, Pro Public (Friends of the Earth, Nepal) and the Climate Justice Programme delivered several petitions to UNESCO requesting that the barrier reefs of Belize and Australia, the Huascaran National Park (Peru) that has the tallest tropical mountain range, and the Sagarmatha National Park (Nepal), over which looms Mount Everest, be included on the In Danger list. This is the first time climate change is invoked as a reason for such a move. “The Convention is an appropriate tool to cope with the degradation of the sites due to global warming,” says Peter Roderick, co-director of the Climate Justice Programme. “It is also a way to attract attention to the fact that these invaluable and exceptional sites are under threat,” he added.

Experts to study effects

The facts are undeniable. The snow cap of the Himalayas has shrunk by 30% in 30 years. In some areas, glacier lakes have formed and run the risk of one day flooding valley communities. Th e same is true of the mountains in the Huascaran National Park, which have lost 20% of their glacial cap since the end of the 1960s. As for the barrier reefs, they are threatened by rising water temperatures and the increase in CO2 concentrations in the ocean. “In the future, climate change could eclipse other threats weighing on heritage sites, especially in vulnerable zones such as small coastal states, glaciers, coastal zones or coral reefs,” says David Sheppard, head of the Programme on Protected Areas for the World Conservation Union (IUNC). To remedy the situation he calls for the creation of buff er zones around the most threatened sites so that the ecosystems can be restored.

But the petitioners want to go even further. “We must not limit our efforts only to the effects but also to the causes of the phenomenon,” says Peter Roderick, who is calling for the World Heritage Convention to be used as a means to pressure States Parties into reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. To support this demand he points to the article recognising the need for States Parties to “ensure the transmission of the cultural and natural heritage to future generations”. But this interpretation is erroneous, according to Francesco Bandarin, Director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre. “Global warming is a global problem,” he explains, “but the Convention, which deals with individual sites, rests on a very local vision. There is, therefore, a gap between the problem and the available tools.” And an ad hoc tool is already available, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Nonetheless, the idea is gaining ground. Due to the petitions, the question was added to the agenda of the World Heritage Committee meeting in July 2005 in Durban, South Africa. Although the Committee did not follow the environmentalists’ suggestion by putting the four sites on the In Danger list, it did call for a group of experts to be convened and to provide a report on the issue next year.

See also:
  • World Heritage in Danger List
  • Friends of the Earth
        Press Release
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