United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Minimizing disarter risk for world heritage cities in mountain areas

Paris - Some of the world's most precious monuments - and the thousands of people living in or near them - are in mountainous areas prone to natural disasters.

According to scientists, the 16th century site of Machu Picchu (Peru), a UNESCO World Heritage site perched 2,430 meters up in the Andes Cordillera, is threatened by a landslide. And experts say that the Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), another World Heritage site that boasts seven different monument zones, is at risk of a major earthquake.

To address such threats, UNESCO, with the city of Chambéry (France) and its specially created Montanea Association, is organizing a conference in Chambéry, September 25-27, on "World Heritage Mountain Cities and Natural Hazards". The meeting is also a contribution to the United Nations International Year of the Mountain, which ends in December. Alongside experts who will discuss the causes of natural disasters and propose protection measures, mayors from mountain cities around the world will meet to share experiences and look at the potential for co-operation.

In the decade from 1991-2000, natural disasters killed a reported 665,598 people (World Disaster Report 2001), probably an underestimate. And every year over 211,000 people are affected by natural disasters - two-thirds of them from floods. The number of weather-related disasters (droughts, floods and storms, for example) has doubled since 1996 while the number of geophysical disasters (e.g. earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) has remained steady over the last decade. And while floods cause the most damage, earthquakes run a close second, causing nearly US$270 billion of damage in the decade from 1991-2000 (World Disaster Report 2001).

"Mountain areas are particularly prone to earthquakes", says Wolfgang Eder, Director of UNESCO's Earth Sciences Division, the main organizer of the Chambéry conference, "especially 'young' mountains like the Himalayas." These started to be produced some 50 million years ago when India, which was then an island, collided with Eurasia at a speed of about 15 centimetres a year. The shock pushed the Eurasian continental plate upwards, which, says Eder, "is why fossils from the seabed can be found over 5,000m above today's sea-level, on the Tibetan plateau." And the Himalayas are still rising, by about 1cm a year. A fault line stretches the whole length of the mountain range, making it one of the most seismically active areas on Earth, with over 40 earthquakes measuring over magnitude 7 on the Richter scale between 1911 and 1991.

The biggest earthquake in living memory to hit Nepal was the so-called Nepal-Bihar 'quake of 1934, measuring 8.4 on the Richter scale. It killed over 4,000 people and destroyed a quarter of all homes and some monuments. With some experts calculating a 75-year cycle for earthquakes of this magnitude in the region, they say that another major tremor is inevitable in the Kathmandu valley, although no one knows exactly when. As Kathmandu city expands with no enforceable building code and in disregard for traditional architectural wisdom, the loss of life and property could be many times that of the Nepal-Bihar disaster.

Landslides, often following heavy rain, pose another threat to life and property in mountain areas. When man has modified the natural ecology, through deforestation, or extensive terracing for example, the risk can be far greater. The heaviest rains for three decades brought floods and landslides to Nepal in July this year, killing some 187 people and cutting off the Kathmandu Valley from the rest of the country. And in Machu Picchu, scientists from the Kyoto University Disaster Prevention Research Institute in Japan have recently found that land is moving down the slope directly behind the Inca site at about 1 cm a month.

The risk of natural disasters is often known and some preventive measures can be taken to protect human life, using selected materials and practices for building, avoiding flood-prone areas, etc. But it is often impossible to protect historic monuments from damage. According to Peter Laws, a consultant in the Asia Unit of the World Heritage Centre, one positive step would be to compile detailed records of monuments and treasures so that they can be reconstructed in the event of a disaster. Local authorities might also draw up a disaster action plan that could include briefing emergency services on how to limit the damage. "It would be a pity to lose precious time rescuing stone statues from a flood when parchment manuscripts should be saved first," says Laws.

In January this year, UNESCO helped to launch an International Consortium on Landslides (ICL), with a series of projects aimed at mitigating risks. And UNESCO has been cooperating with Kyoto University's Disaster Prevention Research Institute since 1999 on protection of cultural and natural heritage sites. In June this year UNESCO's World Heritage Centre provided US$75,000 to the Arequipa authorities to help save the city's cathedral, seriously damaged by the earthquake of June 23, 2001, that killed 70 people and left another 20,000 homeless. It was, of course, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD, that buried the people and buildings of Pompeii in volcanic ash, freezing them in time. Pompeii was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1997.


The conference will be held at the Centre de Congrès, Chambéry, from September 25 to 27.

Contact: Association Montanea
Tel: (+33) (0)4 7960 2101
E-mail: m.marchal@mairie-chambéry.fr

Peter Coles - UNESCO Bureau of Public Information - Editorial Section
Tel: (+33) (0)6 1469 5498
E-mail: p.coles@unesco.org

Source Press Release No.2002-66
Website 1 (URL) Further details on the conference
Publication Date 23 Sep 2002
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