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Proposals to weaken World Heritage protection confronted by NGOs

Difficult dilemmas are discussed at the 43rd World Heritage Committee session in Baku. The RwB had a chance to introduce the Heritage Dammed Report during debate on two World Heritage sites threatened by dams.

Eugene Simonov -the RwB international coordinator is waiting to be allowed to make intervention.
NGO representative prepares for intervention

From July 1 afternoon African countries (which usually vote here in one united block) are challenging key enforcement mechanisms of the World Heritage Convention contrasting it with “rights to Sustainable development”. The move is backed now by Brazil, Bahrain and Azerbaijan.  Countries of Africa want more “development benefits from heritage resources” and hands off policy of World Heritage Center and Advisory Bodies. African countries want themselves  make final judgment on sufficiency of EIAs and do whatever they consider necessary at their WH sites whether or not consistent with the Convention’s operational guidelines and Committee’s decisions. They also want to remove a dozen of African sites from the “Heritage in Danger” list because “sites are inscribed there for too long”, thus disregarding whether or not main problems were resolved.

Other countries may use the situation in their political competition, which is especially vivid in case of Brazil, which initiated in 2018 discussions on this topic “Priority Africa, sustainable development and World Heritage“. China at the start exercised relative restraint, stating that it wants to see “less African heritage sites on the Danger List and more African properties listed on the main WH list”. Decision was postponed due to disagreement of other committee members, mainly “western” countries.

Resulting decision, whatever it will be politically is really damaging for it is recognizing dichotomy between the Convention and Sustainable development in unproductive manner and asks for exceptions made in specific region.

On July 2 similar discussion continued focusing on the Selous Game Reserve and Lake Turkana Parks, both sites on the Heritage in Danger List.

African countries led by Angola and Tanzania refuted Draft Decision on the Selous Game Reserve, in the middle of which a giant hydropower plant construction is being launched by Tanzania president with support from Egypt. Some Committee members suggested that since Tanzania started construction works, it is advisable to ask the state party to do it using “best environmental practices” and close eyes on gross violations and irreparable damage. Draft decision was calling for strategic environmental assessment, alternatives to proposed dam to be considered, Reinforced Monitoring Mechanism to be enacted and so on. China, Brazil and several other countries supported Angola-Tanzania proposal to weaken decision, Kyrgyzstan asked to clarify why energy alternatives are not considered, while Australia, Hungary, Guatemala, Norway and others were trying to retain original decision. On suggestion of China and others the mentioning of Egypt as the third party, whose company is involved in dam construction, was removed from resulting decision. There are rumors that while the China Three Gorges publicly refused to participate in the Rufiji Dam construction, other Chinese companies are actively eyeing this opportunity. Strategic environmental assessment and consideration of development options also has no place in resulting decision. Although the decision regrets that reactive monitoring mission was not invited and the submitted EIA has no credibility, the suggestion for future possibility of  “deletion from the World Heritage List, in accordance with Paragraph 192 of the Operational Guidelines” was removed from the final decision. The decision still tells Tanzania “not to undertake any steps that may cause irreparable damage”, which in context of weakening overall decision, non-consideration of alternatives, and on-going construction looks as hypocrisy. Tanzania declared “We can live with that” likely meaning continuation of destruction.

Despite submitting a request for joint intervention, World Heritage Watch network and the RwB were not given the floor when issues were discussed and, after taking decision on Selous, the Committee proceeded to discuss Lake Turkana Parks. This site was included on the Danger list last year after dams and irrigation built on Omo River in Ethiopia led to dramatic changes in water regime and wide-spread degradation. Some members, likely on behalf of Kenya, were asking to include into the Decision a promise to remove Lake Turkana Parks from the List of Heritage in Danger as soon as some bureaucratic documents are submitted to the Center.  China went even further and proposed to erase the request that Ethiopia halts development of Kuraz Irrigation Project on Omo River before assessments are reviewed by the advisory bodies. It clearly expressed support to “sustainable development” which is now becoming an euphemism for intentional destruction of heritage values. This was collectively confronted by Norway and 5 other countries. So the decision is left for finalization on the next day, but likely will be significantly diluted.

At that point the RwB finally managed to take the floor with the following intervention of behalf of many civil society groups and delivered the following message:

Excellencies, Thank you for giving me the floor. I am speaking on behalf of World Heritage Watch network and the Rivers without Boundaries international coalition. Originally we asked to speak during the discussion on Selous Game Reserve, but now talking on both discussed cases – Selous and Lake Turkana Parks makes our words even more relevant to your work.

We see World Heritage protection as the core part of the Sustainable Development Concept and biodiversity conservation is the key Sustainable development goal of the United Nations supporting many other SDGs.

River and lake ecosystems, support livelihoods of billions of people, and freshwater features are the most endangered component of global biodiversity. Civil society networks complied for you a report titled “Heritage Dammed” analyzing threats from water infrastructure to World Heritage globally. The report also suggests how to make the Convention more effective in conservation of river and lake ecosystems and sustainable management of river basins. 

 The Lake Turkana – is the largest desert lake in the world. Selous Game Reserve is among the largest conservation areas in Africa with high biodiversity value. Much of this biodiversity depends on riverine ecosystems of Omo and Rufiji rivers.

From 50 cases of water infrastructure conflicts that we analyzed for the Report the case of the Gibe dams on Omo River and Stiegler’s Gorge Dam on Rufiji River are associated with the greatest threats and irreversible damage to the World Heritage Values as well as with potential violations of key decisions made by the Committee.

The challenges and threats to these valuable sites are tremendous and require urgent efforts of the Committee.  We collectively supported the Centre’s draft decision for Selous Game Reserve, and recommended for it to be adopted without any weakening amendments. Both in case of Turkana and now in the case of Selous the procrastination in taking timely decisions by the Committee, decrease its effectiveness and contribute to ultimate irreversible damage from water infrastructure development.

As with any other major infrastructure it is of the greatest importance that a strategic environmental assessment including consideration of wide range of alternative development option must be completed according to the highest international standards. This is a way to avoid damage and reconcile development options and conservation of natural heritage.

This is all for today

Eugene Simonov, RwB

43rd Session of the World Heritage Committee

Baku, Azerbaijan

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