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Reducing Disasters Risks at World Heritage Properties

World Heritage properties, as with all heritage properties, are exposed to natural and man-made disasters which threaten their integrity and may compromise their values. The loss or deterioration of these outstanding properties would negatively impact local and national communities, both for their cultural importance as a source of information on the past and a symbol of identity, and for their socio-economic value.

Picture painted by a primary school child in Sri Lanka after the tsunami in 2005

Why Disaster Risk Reduction?

Risks related to disasters within heritage sites are a function of their vulnerability to different potential hazards. The natural disasters in Bam, Iran, or in the Old Fort of Galle in Sri Lanka are high profile examples of the vulnerability of cultural heritage worldwide. Natural heritage can also be threatened, in exceptional circumstances, by natural disasters. Hazards, however, may be also human-made, such as fire, explosions etc. Accidental forest fires, conflicts, massive refugee movements, bursting of tailing pond dams as in Doñana (Spain), are certainly a concern to natural WH sites. If natural disasters are difficult to prevent or control, hazards resulting from human activities can be avoided, and the vulnerability of heritage sites to both natural and human-made disasters can be reduced, thus lowering the overall risk threatening a property.

Recent studies, moreover, have suggested that the heritage, in both its tangible and intangible forms, is not simply a passive entity exposed to potential damage in the even of a disaster, but has often a significant role to play in reducing the impact of disasters on lives, property, and livelihoods, before, during and after the disasters (see below).

Moreover, protecting heritage will safeguard a precious asset for the sustainable social and economic development of the region during the recovery stage, both for its capacity to attract investments (such as for tourism purposes) and as a source of renewable and sustainable natural resources (such as wood, fish etc.). The importance of heritage as a source of employment should also not be underestimated.

The need for action

Despite this, many World Heritage properties do not have any established policy, plan or process for managing, i.e. reducing, risks associated with potential disasters. Moreover, existing national and local disaster preparedness and response mechanisms usually do not include heritage expertise in their operations. As a result, hundreds of sites are virtually defenceless with respect to potential disasters, and communities worldwide are not exploiting the full potential of their heritage, both tangible and intangible, for reducing disasters' risk. 

There are indeed many ways in which heritage can assist in reducing the impact of disasters, before, during and after they have taken place.  For instance, research in areas affected by seismic activities has shown that buildings constructed with traditional techniques have proven very resilient to quakes, when well maintained. An appropriate use of the land and the conservation of forests, on the other hand, have been identified as major contributors to preventing landslides and floods, which cause each year more casualties than earthquakes in many parts of the world.

Intangible heritage can also be of help. The recent case of the fishermen from the Andaman Islands, who knew from their forefathers that when the sea withdraws, humans must do the same, is a testimony to the ways in which traditional knowledge can save lives. Another relevant example is the passing, generation to generation, of the traditional knowledge on the complex procedures which ensure the protection from fire of the World heritage site of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple of Kyoto, in Japan.

Heritage and the traditional skills that have maintained it over the centuries, therefore, can be essential to enhance prevention and mitigation of disasters. Many observers noted, for instance, that a control on the chaotic urban sprawling along the coast of the Southern Indian countries would have probably saved tens of thousands of lives and reduced considerably the extent of the damage from the tsunami. Similarly, the preservation of traditional mud-brick and timber-laced dwellings would have most likely reduced the tragic death toll of the of Bam earthquake (2003), when nearly all the casualties were reported to have occurred in buildings constructed less than 40 years ago, using a non-engineered and uncontrolled mix of modern techniques. If one considers that nearly 50 % of the Iranian population still lives in earthen constructions located in highly seismic areas, it is easy to understand the importance of an appropriate conservation policy for traditional settlements. The same reasoning, of course, applies to several other countries of Central Asia and regions of the world, such as Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb.

Improving the management of risks for properties inscribed on the World Heritage List, therefore, is necessary to prevent and reduce damage from disasters and to preserve their cultural and natural values, thus protecting an essential support for the social and economic well-being of their communities.

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre is working together with States Parties to the Convention, Advisory Bodies and other partners, to develop policies and practical measures to address these challenges. These include the elaboration of a Strategy for Reducing Risks from Disasters at World Heritage Properties, technical workshops and resource material, as well as International Assistance to World Heritage properties to prepare for, or respond to disasters.

Strategy for Reducing Risks from Disasters at World Heritage Properties

The World Heritage Committee in 2004 invited "the World Heritage Centre, in co-operation with the States Parties, Advisory Bodies, and other international agencies and non-governmental organisations concerned by emergency interventions, to prepare a risk-preparedness strategy". The Strategy was presented to the World Heritage Committee at its 30th session in 2006, which endorsed its objectives. Subsequently, the revised Strategy for Risk Reduction at World Heritage Properties was presented and approved by the World Heritage Committee at its 31st session in 2007.

Purpose of the Strategy

The purpose of the Strategy is to strengthen the protection of World Heritage and contribute to sustainable development by assisting States Parties to:

  1. integrate concern for heritage into national disaster reduction policies; and
  2. incorporate concern for disaster risk reduction within management plans and systems for World Heritage properties in their territories.

Scope of the Strategy

For the purpose of this Strategy, risks are to be understood as risks arising from disasters that affect the cultural or natural heritage values of World Heritage sites or their integrity and/or authenticity. Hence, the Strategy will not cover gradual cumulative processes and factors, such as pollution, tourism, or urban encroachment. The Strategy is innovative with respect to previous policies concerning disasters and heritage in that it emphasizes, for the first time, the positive role that the heritage could play in reducing the impact of disasters through the goods and services it provides to communities.

Objectives and priority actions

The Strategy identifies five objectives and related actions. They are structured around the five main priorities for action defined by the Hyogo Framework for Action, the main UN-wide policy on the subject of Disaster Reduction, and are also in line with Article 5 of the World heritage Convention as well as the Strategic Objectives established through the Budapest Declaration. The five key objectives are:

  1. Strengthen support within relevant global, regional, national and local institutions for reducing risks at World Heritage properties;
  2. Use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of disaster prevention at World Heritage properties;
  3. Identify, assess and monitor disaster risks at World Heritage properties;
  4. Reduce underlying risk factors at World Heritage properties;
  5. Strengthen disaster preparedness at World Heritage properties for effective response at all levels.

The objectives and corresponding priority actions can be found in WHC-07/31.COM/7.2.

Resource Material

Resource Manual on Managing Disaster Risks at World Heritage properties

As requested by the Committee, a Resource Manual on ‘Managing Disaster Risks for World Heritage’ was prepared, in English and French, under the coordination of ICCROM and with inputs from the World Heritage Centre, ICOMOS and IUCN.

Rather than presenting specific techniques for addressing various types of hazards, this Manual is meant to provide site managers and heritage administrators with a strong methodological framework to identify, assess and reduce risks from disasters. Tested at some World Heritage properties, the Manual integrates some innovative approaches such as the consideration of the positive contribution that heritage can make to reducing disaster risks in general and the potential of using traditional knowledge in DRR strategies.

Technical workshops

In addition to the Strategy, a number of Workshops have been co-organised by the World Heritage Centre and other partner Institutions on the subject of disaster risks. These have resulted in proceedings and resource materials to help managers of World heritage properties build their capacity in managing disaster risks.

International Assistance under the World Heritage Fund

The Convention provides International Assistance to States Parties for the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage located on their territories and inscribed, or potentially suitable for inscription on the World Heritage List. International Assistance has been provided to States Parties in order to respond to disasters and to protect the World Heritage sites from disasters in two forms.

Emergency Assistance


The policies for the use of the Emergency Assistance Funds are described in paragraph 241 of the Operational Guidelines. According to this paragraph, "This assistance may be requested to address ascertained or potential threats facing properties included on the List of World Heritage in Danger and the World Heritage List which have suffered severe damage or are in imminent danger of severe damage due to sudden, unexpected phenomena. Such phenomena may include land subsidence, extensive fires, explosions, flooding or man-made disasters including war. This assistance does not concern cases of damage or deterioration caused by gradual processes of decay, pollution or erosion...."

In light of this paragraph, it is therefore understood that Emergency Assistance should be provided only in cases when an imminent danger related to a natural or human-made disaster is threatening the overall Outstanding Universal Value of a World Heritage property, to prevent or mitigate its possible negative impact on the site. Emergency assistance could be provided also to assess whether or not such imminent danger is present, for example as a result of a major disaster. When, on the contrary, due to a disaster, a certain loss of heritage has already taken place, but there is no more imminent threat or risk that must be addressed as a matter of urgency, other forms of assistance would appear to be more appropriate (e.g. Conservation and Management Assistance - see below).

Further guidance on the use of Emergency Assistance can be found in Annex 9, "Evaluation Criteria of the Advisory Bodies for International Assistance Requests" of the Operational Guidelines.

Cases for which Emergency Assistance was granted

  • Post-Earthquake Assistance for the Field Investigation and Rehabilitation of the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries (China)
    After the earthquake in Sichuan, China in 2008 that severely damaged the ecological system of Panda Sanctuaries, the International Assistance was granted to a project to help the management agency effectively deal with the post-earthquake situation, including disaster evaluation of the sites, needs assessment and re-building of capacity of the site management authority. The project aimed to (1) carry out detailed assessment of damage to the site from the earthquake through a rapid assessment of the risks and needs, (2) make detailed plan for reconstruction of the earthquake affected, and (3) support restoring the management capacity of the site.
  • Emergency assistance request for Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
    The emergency assistance request is to assist Ecuadorian authorities to mitigate the negative environmental impacts caused by the oil tanker accident that took place on 16th January 2001 near San Cristobal Island, in the archipelago of Galapagos. Project activities included, among others, (1) Efforts to collect the majority of the oil leaked into the sea, (2) reinforce the circle around the tanker in order to control the oil from spreading, (3) collection of the majority of the oil manually, using absorbing cloths and dispersants in the affected area, (4) monitoring of the sensible species affected by oil, for example sea-lions, marine birds, sea turtles and iguanas.

Conservation and Management Assistance

Contrary to Emergency Assistance, when a certain loss of heritage has already taken place due to a disaster but there is no more imminent threat or risk that must be addressed as a matter or urgency, other forms of assistance could be considered more  appropriate, such as for Conservation and Management. The principles regulating the awarding of this type of assistance are outlined in paragraph 241 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

Cases for which Conservation and Management Assistance was granted

  • Annual Seminary Workshop on Cultural Heritage Risk Prevention for the Caribbean and Central America (Dominican Republic)
    International Assistance was granted to the Dominican Republic in 2002 in order to help to hold a follow-up meeting of a workshop on Risk Prevention for the Caribbean and Central America, which was organised in 1998, following damages caused by Hurricane George. This seminary workshop aimed to (1) improve the capacity of site managers, (2) integrate risk prevention in the official national programs, (3) improve preparation techniques for natural and human caused disasters, and (4) elaborate guidelines for risk prevention in specific sites.

Other Assistance

Cultural Emergency Response (CER)

The Prince Claus Fund is a Dutch foundation aiming at increasing cultural awareness as well as promoting exchange between culture and development.

With this intention, the foundation initiated the Cultural Emergency Response (CER) program in 2003, which provides grants to conduct basic repairs and to prevent further damage on cultural heritage.

The Rapid Response Facility (RRF)

In time of emergency, it is crucial to respond to threats as rapidly as possible.

In addition to International Assistance, UNESCO World Heritage Centre together with Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and the United Nations Foundation have been operating the Rapid Response Facility (RRF) since 2006. It is a mechanism to rapidly provide grants (up to 30,000 USD) to respond to threats to biodiversity in natural World Heritage sites. Grants can be evaluated and provided within eight working days.

Decisions (1)
Show 31COM 7.2