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River Protection Crisis and the World Heritage System

30 June 2019 Topics:

The RwB Guide to the 43rd WH Committee Session, 2019

Vice-president of Azerbaidzhan Alieva opens the World heritage Committee Session

The 43rd Session of the World Heritage Committee is opening today in Baku, Azerbaijan. This is an overview of most pressing river and dam related issues planned for review or voiced by NGOs.

The 6th International NGO Forum on World Heritage was be held on June 29th with participation of representatives of World Heritage Center, IUCN, ICOMOS and many civil society groups involved in conservation efforts in Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Americas.  Forum discussed impacts of climate change and dams on the World Heritage and adopted three resolutions on prevention of negative  impacts of water infrastructure: one general appeal for protection of World Heritage Sites and free flowing rivers, as well as resolutions on Mesopotamian Marshes and Tropical Rainforest heritage of Sumatra (also see the 2018 “Dam Damage” Resolution available here).

The 43 Session of the WH Committee has to review more than 100 state of conservation reports, among them more than 30 properties have been impacted, previously threatened or potentially affected by water infrastructure. Such 2018-19 reports are presented by Cameroon, Indonesia, Tanzania, Kenya, China, Russia, Bangladesh, Spain, India, Nepal, North Macedonia, Canada, USA, Panama, Honduras, Colombia, Iraq, Australia, Senegal,  Thailand, Turkey, Spain, Zambia, Zimbabwe and some other  countries. 

All in all according to our Heritage Dammed[1]” Report[i] (presented to session participants), at least 50 World Heritage sites in 35 countries are affected or threatened by impacts from hydropower or other water infrastructure. Heritage Dammed Report consists of general analysis and 20 case-studies on dam-related conflicts (including 11 of 15 heritage sites highlighted below as most important examples ).

The filling of Ilisu Dam reservoir in Turkey was postponed after wide protests on the 3rd International day to Save Hasankeyf and Tigris River on 7-8 June 2019. This dam project may severely worsen already weakened water regime in the Mesopotamia Marshes – part of “Ahwar of Southern Iraq” World Heritage property. Many other large dams are planned in Iraqi Kurdistan with involvement of Turkish, Iranian and Chinese companies. Committee is calling for and cooperation between countries of the region to ensure sufficient and timely water flows. The draft decision contains rather vague appeal to Iraq, Turkey and Iran to ensure “sufficient minimal water flows”, while neither mentioning threats from dam construction projects, nor noting importance of preserving natural flood pulse to sustain marshlands.  NGOs address Committee members and related State Parties with request to make more specific binding commitments.

The key conflict related to dams on Omo River in Ethiopia, which trigger degradation of two World Heritage properties, will be discussed in relation to Lake Turkana Parks placed in 2018 on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The attempt of Tanzania to build hydropower dam on Rufiji River with 91 000 ha reservoir inside Selous Game Reserve led to a construction contract with Egyptian firm inexperienced in dam building and initial clearing of 2500 ha of forest habitat. The hydropower project looks financially unviable, while many les harmful energy alternatives are readily available. (see Technical review of the environmental impact assessment for the Rufiji hydropower project in Selous Game Reserve) The move has been condemned by IUCN, WWF, etc. and strongly opposed by the World Heritage Committee. The IUCN  warns about prospects to remove the Selous Game Reserve from the World Heritage List if deforestation and other encroachment continues. The draft decision suggests applying the Reinforced Monitoring Mechanism to the property, because Tanzania failed to invite monitoring mission and deliver SEA before construction started. The draft decision also condemns Egypt for participating in this project.

In Indonesia three dams (Tampur Lesten, Jambo Aye and Kluet) threaten Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra and another hydropower dam is being built to fragment the nearby Batang-Toru ecosystem – the only home of recently discovered Tapanuli Orangutan. Friends of the Earth recently organized world-wide protest to prevent dam funding by Bank of China and the bank promised to conduct due diligence and review its funding commitments. Draft decision of the WH Committee calls for rigorous assessments of infrastructure, but NGOs press for freezing of all dam building, stringent EIAs for any infrastructure and inclusion of Batang-Toru area into the WH Property.

Canada delivered the SEA report on Woods Buffalo National Park which openly recognizes steady degradation of the Peace-Athabasca Rivers Delta due to impacts of hydropower dams and tar-sand oil extraction. However no sufficient correction action was undertaken and construction of the next “Site C” dam goes on. Mikisew Cree First Nation will likely challenge this inaction during the Session.

In Australia the authorities are proposing to raise by 14 meters a “flood control” dam near Sydney, which will result in inundation of river valley in Greater Blue Mountains WH property. Conservationists run “Give a Dam” campaign to pressure the New South Wales authorities to find alternative ways to solve the problems of urban growth and WH Committee draft decision asks for rigorous assessments.

Manas National Park in India is already suffering from transboundary hydropower impacts and those will increase as India funds construction of another upstream dam in Bhutan. However India’s own report to the Committee again acknowledges that Bhutan authorities did not submit any information on impact assessment. Chitwan National Park in Nepal may similarly suffer from impacts of dozens of domestic hydropower projects mushrooming upstream from this World Heritage site. Regrettably, Nepal’s report to the Committee, while acknowledging threats from changing water regime (due to climate change), fails to mention hydropower as potential source of similar cumulative impacts.

Several sites plagued by multiple stressors, including impacts from water infrastructure are proposed by draft decisions for inclusion on the Heritage in Danger List, such as Ohrid Lake in North Macedonia and Sundarbans in Bangladesh. Heated discussions are expected on those decisions at the session. Civil society and expert community of Bangladesh launched a petition to support correction measures.

Rivers are under-protected in the World Heritage system. Very little number of large river ecosystems has been protected by World Heritage properties, and sometimes establishment or “river–related” site does not result in protection of a river. This is best illustrated by a discussion between China and World Heritage Committee regarding construction of hydropower and other infrastructure on rivers running through “Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas of Yunnan”. The World Heritage boundaries have been purposefully drawn so that Jingsha, Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween) rivers are not included in the “three rivers” property and now China insists that building a Longpan megadam drowning famous Tiger Leaping Gorge and other planned hydropower projects inflict no harm on the values of the WH site. The Longpan Hydro, inscribed in 2019 into “Green Industry Catalogue of China”, also may necessitate resettlement of 100 000 rural people, mostly belonging to Tibetan and Naxi minorities. So far the draft decision calls for rectification of the SEA on infrastructure impacts and legal protection of Nu river as free-flowing river ecosystem.

At the same time dam removal is accelerating in many countries, and China, which has record number of dams, is now removing dozens of small hydropower facilities in protected areas and sensitive basins, including at Dujiangyan WH Site in Sichuan and at Giant Salamander national Nature reserve in Henan. Shiretoko WH site in Japan presents another example of dam removal reviewed during  this session.

Keys to protection of rivers from undue impacts of hydropower globally seem to be held in the hands of primarily Chinese companies and state banks which support more than 70% of hydropower projects built globally. At least at 17 locations Chinese companies and/or banks are believed to be involved in projects potentially threatening WH sites. However there are some clear hopeful signs: in 2016 China Eximbank withdrew its loan from Egiin Gol Hydro in Mongolia, after learning it may affect Lake Baikal in Russia. In 2019 at the World Heritage Congress the China Three Gorges Co. stated that it declined an offer to build Rufiji Dam in Tanzania, because dam is planned inside a World Heritage site. There is hope that in near future more banks and companies in China and other countries will adopt “no go” policies for dams affecting World Heritage and other key biodiversity areas, especially free flowing rivers. Conservationists are planning to address each large company involved in hydropower construction globally to urge them make such commitments and follow those safeguards. Fate of rivers and aquatic biodiversity also depends on whether their protection is mainstreamed into “Belt and Road Initiative” policies of China. Presently China is the influential member of current World Heritage Committee and final decisions on most cases outlined above depend on position of Chinese delegation.

The Heritage Dammed” Report contains comprehensive recommendations how to protect natural and cultural values of freshwater ecosystems in the context of the World Heritage Convention and beyond.

  • Keep World Heritage sites, as well as any other biodiversity hotspots protected areas, off-limits of large-scale water infrastructure and prevent upstream and downstream impacts from hydropower.
    • Designate a series of large natural rivers as World Heritage, use all existing legal conservation tools to ensure protection in perpetuity of the remaining free-flowing rivers and design new tools for effective protection;
    • Expedite adjustment and removal from natural areas of water infrastructure that harms key freshwater biodiversity and conduct strategic environmental assessments to optimize tradeoffs at basin-wide level;
    • Stop the “Climatewash”: allowing destruction of rivers by hydropower under the excuse “it is a remedy for climate change”, while dams bring today destruction similar or worse than anticipated impacts of climate change on our rivers in  future;
    • Enhance investment safeguards and due diligence at financial institutions to divert funds from bad dam projects to more sustainable alternatives for clean energy and water supply.

Permanent link to the “Heritage Dammed” Report: http://www.transrivers.org/pdf/2019HeritageDammedFinal.pdf

The joint statement ‘false promises of hydropower’ co-signed by over 250 civil society organizations from all over the world is available here in Chinese, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian and French and is open to new sign-on from civil society organizations at this webpage.                                                                  

If you have relevant information on planned river-related World Heritage Committee decisions and\or heritage and civil society activities that you want to be included in this review and further RwB monitoring – please inform us. The RwB International Coalition will send a representative to attend the NGO forum and the World Heritage Committee Session and will be happy to coordinate\cooperate on issues of mutual interest. If you need additional information or want coordinate with us your advocacy efforts, please, write to Eugene Simonov: simonov@riverswithoutboundaries.org


[1]  Heritage Dammed: Water Infrastructure Impacts on World Heritage Sites and Free Flowing Rivers. Civil Society Report to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and Parties of the World Heritage Convention. Published by Rivers without Boundaries and World Heritage Watch. Moscow, 2019. 132 p. ISBN 978-5-4465-2345-0. http://www.transrivers.org/pdf/2019HeritageDammedFinal.pdf


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