Climate change eroding value of heritage sites

Jeffrey Gogo Climate Story
WORLD Heritage Sites like the iconic Great Zimbabwe Monument and the splendid Victoria Falls are coming under severe pressure from climate change, threatening to erode the sites’ outstanding universal value (OUV) — their exceptional cultural or natural worth, one which when lost can never be replaced — according to a new study.

A World Heritage Site is a natural or man-made area or structure of global significance, whose unique qualities or features cannot be found anywhere else on earth, and, therefore, should be protected jealously.

For a site to qualify, it must meet at least one of ten criteria set by the UN’s Organisation for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO).

Built over 400 years since the 11th century with mortar-less granite stone, the Great Zimbabwe meets three of those requirements including that it “represents a masterpiece of human creative genius.” It is a cultural heritage structure.

The Victoria Falls, the world’s “largest curtain of falling water” qualifies on account that it “contains superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty or of aesthetic importance.”

This is only one of the two criteria standards it satisfies, as a natural site.

Zimbabwe has three other areas classified as World Heritage sites — The Mana Pools, Matobo Hills, and Khami Ruins.

According to a new report released last Thursday by UNESCO, climate change is shaking the foundations of key cultural and natural world heritage sites, which double as major tourism drawcards in several African countries.

“Historic buildings and monuments are vulnerable to climate-related damage from extreme wind and rainfall events, as well as from coastal erosion, flooding and increasing damp and other impacts,” said the report titled ‘World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate.’

“Building foundations can be destabilised by increases or decreases in soil moisture, changes in the freeze/thaw cycle . . . climate fluctuations inside buildings — the effect of higher temperatures and humidity — can cause mould, rot and insect infestations.”

The study does not mention the Great Zimbabwe or the Victoria Falls specifically, but drawing on conclusions from related case studies in South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania and elsewhere in the world, the results show the common over-arching adverse impact of climate change on the economic potential of World Heritage sites as tourism destinations.

It says “over the long term the OUV, integrity and authenticity of some World Heritage sites could eventually be degraded by climate change to the extent that some properties may have to be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger and consideration eventually given to their de-listing.”

Increased water scarcity and heat could disrupt the flow of water into areas like the Victoria Falls, or cause permanent changes in the composition of ecosystems and bio-diversity, causing some plant and animal species to completely disappear within their protected zones, experts say.

The relationship between tourism and World Heritage sites is inextricably strong, but also damaging.

In Zimbabwe, the Victoria Falls is the biggest tourist destination, attracting more than one million visitors each year — half of all the tourists that visited Zimbabwe in 2014.

As a sector, tourism accounts for 11 percent of gross domestic product. Tourism Minister Walter Mzembi is targeting to boost those numbers to 15 percent by 2020, or turning the sector into a $5 billion economy.

But World Heritage sites where tourism infrastructure developments are uncontrolled or poorly managed visitor access are already a problem, climate change is likely to exacerbate the problems and increase site vulnerability, says UNESCO.

Visitor-induced damage has already resulted in stricter controls elsewhere.

Stonehenge in the UK now only allows access to a newly built visitors’ centre rather than to the prehistoric site itself, “so as to prevent damage to the stones.”

In Egypt, Tutankhamun’s tomb will soon be closed and a replica built for tourists to visit instead.

UNESCO says these “sites have suffered significant deterioration caused by the humidity and temperature changes resulting from thousands of tourists entering their enclosed spaces.”

Allowed to develop too fast in an unsustainable way, the report says, “tourism can undermine the very assets that people want to visit. In the worst cases, little or no social or economic benefit accrues to local communities and the integrity of a site’s outstanding universal value can be threatened or degraded.”

Compared to other regions, visitor-impact is still relatively low in Africa.

Between 1979 and 2013, tourists accounted for just 16 percent of all damage to World Heritage sites across the continent — the lowest by any other region, according to the report.

But poor management systems have done more harm. More than 80 percent of Africa’s outstanding cultural and natural sites have deteriorated due to a lack of strong conservation plans.

Only the Arab world at 84 percent fares much worse. Illegal activities and poor funding remain a major constraint to the protection of World Heritage sites on the continent, UNESCO says.

Unfortunately, World Heritage sites cannot be moved. Protection must occur in the place of origin, ensuring their heritage values are retained.

All hope is not lost, however. And it can be found in one of the most unlikely places, places that are routinely disregarded by most scientists — native knowledge, tradition and cultural practices.

“Communities living in and around World Heritage sites have developed a wealth of intangible cultural heritage . . . associated with the sustainable management of biodiversity, forests, wetlands and marine resources, often over hundreds or even thousands of year,” UNESCO admitted in its study.

“Cultural heritage provides an important resource, offering precedents alongside which today’s social resilience and adaptive strategies for responding to climate change can be tested.”

UNESCO recommends that countries carry out more research, monitoring and assessments to better understand the vulnerability of World Heritage sites to climate impacts; increase funding as well as mainstreaming heritage sites into local, regional and international climate responses.

It encourages the development of tourism development plans that consider the cross-cutting nature of climate change, and emphasises the participation of local communities in World Heritage sites, among others.

In Zimbabwe, research on the specific potential impacts of climate change on globally valued heritage areas in scattered all over.

However, the country has recognised in its National Climate Change Response Strategy the varying degrees at which changing climates will impact key economic sectors, including tourism. There is only one problem — money.

God is faithful.

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  • Significant Watemwa

    zvinorevei in pedestrian terms. Do we need to reduce the number of visitors to Vic Falls. Seeing that there are also none at Masvingo.