Ticking Time Bombs: Threats to World Heritage Sites in Danger

United Nations on Monday confirmed that the Islamic State destroyed Palmyra,a 2,000-year-old city described by UNESCO as “one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world”. Thousands of years of history turned into rubble in few seconds. While all factions condemned the attack, the event has brought to light the vulnerable situation of world heritage sites in conflict zones.

A cloud rises above where the Temple of Baal Shamin stood in Palmyra until Isis blew it up in August.


“According to UNESCO there are 10 world heritage sites in Syria and Iraq. Of those 10, it says nine are currently in danger – and not just because of Islamic State vandalism”.

UNESCO has listed 48 sites as world Heritage sites in danger to encourage corrective action. Armed conflict and war, earthquakes and other natural disasters, pollution, poaching, uncontrolled urbanization and unchecked tourist development pose major problems to World Heritage sites.

While steps have been taken to conserve, protect and safeguard these heritage sites, but the situation is rather stark. A third of the United Nations World Heritage sites valued for their geology, biodiversity or natural beauty are in severe danger. And 8 percent of all the sites—including Everglades National Park in Florida—are now considered to be in critical condition, according to an assessment from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

When a site is inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, it allows the World Heritage Committee to allocate immediate assistance from the World Heritage Fund to the endangered property. It also alerts the international community to these situations in the hope that it can join efforts to save these endangered sites. The listing of a site as World Heritage in Danger allows the conservation community to respond to specific preservation needs in an efficient manner. A program has also been adopted in consultation with state party for corrective measures and to restore the site in order to remove it from the list.

Mapping the World Heritage Sites in Danger

Deleted from the World Heritage Sites in 2009, The case of the 18th century cultural landscape of Dresden Elbe valley, sets out the perfect example of how if the sites are not protected and managed properly. The removal came on the basis of the Waldschlösschen Bridge that was under construction since 2007 which would bisect the valley and take away the universal value from the site. The point to be noted here is that one A site gets deleted from the list; Not only do the sites get deleted from the world heritage list but immediate assistance from World heritage funds also stops.

Below is a brief description of 3 world heritage sites in danger, which if aren’t attended to properly face the danger of being taken off from the UNESCO’s list.

  • Everglades National Park, once called as “a river of grass flowing imperceptibly from the hinterland into the sea’  and  well known for the exceptional variety of its water habitats that made it a sanctuary for a large number of birds and reptiles, as well as for threatened species such as the manatee. The Park is now listed as critical, mainly due to water issues. It’s the second time the Everglades has been included on the List of World Heritage in Danger. It was first inscribed in 1993 following damage caused by Hurricane Andrew and a marked deterioration in water flows and quality resulting from agricultural and urban development. It was removed from the Danger List in 2007, in recognition of efforts to restore the Park and its wider ecosystem.
Landscape view of the Everglades National Park

However, the degradation of the site has continued.  Water inflows have been reduced by up to 60 percent and nutrient pollution increased to the point where the site is showing significant signs of eutrophication, loss of marine habitat and a subsequent decline in marine species. If the corrective measures aren’t taken seriously, the site may well be taken off from the list

“Current threats related to reduced water flows, water pollution and shifting habitat are affecting the health of the site and the amount and quality of habitat,” the assessment notes.

  • The historic churches of Mtskheta: Inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1994, The historic churches of Mtskheta, former capital of Georgia, were listed as heritage sites in danger in 2009 because of the concerns over there preservation. The churches are outstanding examples of medieval religious architecture in the Caucasus.
An ancient church in Mtskheta and Jvari Monastery on the background

UNESCO has asked Georgia to adopt an integrated management plan for the sites and address problems related to the “serious deterioration” of the stonework and frescoes. Other issues of concern included the management of land near the churches and loss of authenticity due to work carried out in the buildings. However on the brighter side, the Georgian government recently has informed UNESCO officials that all new constructions have been stopped in the area and the country hasa plan to properly preserve the city and its historical monuments.

  • Timbuktu, Mali: Founded toward the end of the 5th century A.D. as a humble market village, Timbuktu became an important intellectual and spiritual center under the country’s Askia dynasty toward the end of the 15th century. Added to the list of world heritage sites in danger in 1990, due to the threat of encroachments by desert sands. However the recent destruction and looting of the site by armed groups has caused irreversible damages and emerged as a major threat to the heritage site. 14 out of the 16 mausoleums given World Heritage  Status have been rendered destroyed in the prolonged conflict.
World Heritage Site Timbuktu under threat

In June, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova expressed dismay over reports that three sacred tombs at Timbuktu had been destroyed.”There is no justification for such wanton destruction,” Bokova said in a statement, “and I call on all parties engaged in the conflict to stop these terrible and irreversible acts.”

Article by – Heeba Din