Climate Change “Mitigation” – Poor  Excuse for Harming the World Heritage

Climate Change “Mitigation” – Poor Excuse for Harming the World Heritage

An article “Harmonizing World Heritage and Climate Measures. The Case of Lake Baikal” by Sergey Shapkhaev, Director, Buriat Regional Union for Baikal and Eugene Simonov, Coordinator of the Rivers without Boundaries Coalition and Researcher at Daursky Biosphere Reserve was published in 2018 World Heritage Watch Report.

 WHW Report 2018 Cover Page

I. "Climate Measures" vs Natural Values – conventions lack coordination

World Heritage sites’ OUVs are affected and threatened by many climate-related threats: floods, droughts, hurricanes, etc. However, it is often overlooked that haphazard human activities allegedly directed towards mitigation and adaptation to climate change also may present a threat to natural heritage. Lack of coordination between different environmental objectives results in proposing projects for technological solutions in climate change mitigation, which may severely compromise values of World Heritage sites. World Heritage is not alone suffering from this phenomenon, the Convention on Migratory Species had to propose special measures to harmonize mainstreaming of "climate friendly" renewable energy technologies (wind, hydro, etc) and requirements for protection of migratory species[i]. Threat to natural ecosystems from poorly planned dams, windmills, biofuel burners and solar farms, as well as supporting long-distance transmission grids became especially obvious after nations who signed the Paris Agreement revealed their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), some of which include projects and programs presenting potential threat to World Heritage and candidate sites. Civil Society has important role in highlighting these contradictions and making governments and conventions’ secretariats undertake efforts for removing particular threats and harmonizing overall policies. Without involvement of concerned citizens, bureaucracies and business alike are likely to use "climate change rhetoric" to advance large infrastructure and energy projects and have too many incentives to overlook threats those projects present to natural ecosystems.

II. "Green Water Infrastructure" also threatens climate system

Most of us have heard about so-called ‘climate refugees’. Assuming the same growth rates of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, their numbers in the EU countries may increase to an extent that makes today’s migration flows pale in comparison. But in fact, the first ‘climate refugees’ appeared during the last century, long before this term entered academic and political parlance, in countries where giant dams and hydroelectric power plants (HPPs) were built on major rivers: the USSR, the US, Brazil, China, and others. Flooding fertile lands in river valleys for hydropower reservoirs resulted in involuntary mass resettlement of the local population. In the 1970s, more than 300 communities with a combined population of 101,500 had to be relocated from an area of 7,600 square kilometers to make way for the hydropower reservoirs on the Angara River (one of which is Lake Baikal itself, which area was expanded by 500 square kilometers due to erection of Irkutskaya hydropower dam))[ii] .

It should be noted that river runoff magnitude and variability are essential climate indicators as important as concentration of various gases in atmosphere. Rivers and lakes are part of the hydrosphere, which, according to Article 1 of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is an integral part of the climate system. Most dam-based HPPs heavily affect and distort natural river runoff fluctuations, producing an impact on hydrosphere surpassing or comparable in scale to similar effects expected in future as a result of anthropogenic GHG emissions.

Many World Heritage sites are threatened by hydropower projects and other water infrastructure. For example, Lake Turkana (Kenya) and Lake Baikal (Russia) are both threatened by hydrological changes due to construction of large hydropower listed in countries’ NDCs. "Landscapes of Dauria" (Mongolia and Russia) is threatened by proposal for interbasin water diversion from Onon to Ulz river framed as "climate adaptation" measure.

III. Threats and their sources

Lake Baikal has been regulated by Angara Hydropower Cascade since 1960, long before it was listed as heritage in the 1990s. In the 21st century it was additionally threatened by dams planned in Selenge River basin in Mongolia. Without going into details of the environmental campaign largely driven by Mongolian and Russian NGOs, we will focus on some of its aspects related specifically to climate threats and World Heritage site management.

Over the past 20 years, areas in Lake Baikal Basin in Mongolia and Russia experienced low-water inflow due to scarce precipitation, particularly in the last three years in which summer droughts caused decreased flow from the Selenge River (contributing 50% of the inflow to Baikal), and a subsequent drop in Lake Baikal’s water level. Many rural communities around Lake Baikal also experienced shortages of quality drinking water due to dropping water levels in ordinary and artesian wells and decrease in fisheries due to shrinking spawning grounds. Therefore, most local people perceived the climate threat as real and affecting their wellbeing and livelihoods. However, older residents still remember catastrophic floods which used to occur every 20 to 30 years, with high-water inflows caused by monsoons from the Pacific Ocean hitting Mongolia. Next cycle of floods was expected by 2015, but instead drought exacerbated.

In this context, the Mongolian government’s plans to construct dam-based HPPs on the Selenge and its tributaries to support energy and mining industries caused a mixed response in both Mongolia and Russia. This necessitated an independent assessment of dams’ potential environmental effects, with a subsequent publication of findings. Mongolia’s mining and energy industry representatives, however, referred to the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement as an overriding priority and tried to deny necessity for international assessment. They insisted that coal-fired power generation needed to be complemented by renewable hydroelectricity to allow Mongolia to reduce its anthropogenic GHG emissions in accordance with the country’s international obligations. In contrast, Mongolian environmentalists and agricultural producers referred to other international agreements, such as the UN Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and Bonn Convention on Migratory Species. They argued that HPP construction would also contravene the key principles of the Paris Agreement as well as Mongolia’s other international environmental obligations.

To further complicate matters, in 2015 China EximBank prepared to lend a large portion of funds needed for the largest HPP in the Selenga basin on the Eg River, which the French Tractebel Engineering \ENGIE Group was designing. Tractebel Engineering, however, has dubious reputation for participating in ‘dirty’ projects causing UNESCO’s concern—like Gibe III Hydro in Ethiopia on Omo River, where a dam is causing damage to Lake Turkana National Parks World Heritage Site in Kenya. The UNESCO proposed to put this  site on the List “World Heritage in Danger”

Various players, often acting on behalf of transnational corporations, attempted to gain access to climate finance under excuse that dam-based HPP produce "clean" ‘green’ energy blessed by the Paris Agreement. For example En+Group (belongs to Russian-Cypriot aluminum tycoon Oleg Deripaska) claimed at its IPO in London Stock Exchange in November 2017, that it produces "green aluminum brand ALLOW" with the help of clean hydropower energy from Angara Cascade. Inconsistencies in the interpretation of "clean energy" in the context of Paris treaty remain a major challenge not only in Mongolia and Russia, but also in wider international arena.

IV. The role for NGOs

To respond effectively to these challenges, local NGOs engaged in global cooperation by setting up and joining international networks, such as Rivers Without Boundaries, Friends of the Earth, and others. International NGOs acted as a bridge between local stakeholders in two countries and large international bodies such as World Heritage Center or World Bank.

NGOs chose to engage in Selenge basin dam dispute based on the relatively high environmental standards required by the World Bank whose loan supported Mongolia’s HPP design. In particular, World Bank policy provides for broad participation of the concerned public, in particular women, NGOs, indigenous people and local communities in the area affected by the project. So a complaint was sent to the WB Inspection Panel, which helped to push for further consultations and assessments.

Another key element of success was the dialogue with World Heritage Committee, World Heritage Center and Convention’s advisory bodies. As a result in 2015-2017 the World Heritage Committee issued helpful decisions requesting assessment of impacts of each individual existing and planned dam as well as urged parties to undertake cumulative assessment of impacts and Strategic environmental assessment (SEA), including analysis of alternatives.

V. Current Status as of April 2018

So far exposure of hydropower projects as threat to World Heritage resulted in considerable reluctance on the part of investors: China EximBank backed out of Egiin Gol Hydro and redistributed its loan to other less risky projects in Mongolia. Other investors are not in a hurry to commit funds to this questionable cause. Despite this large hydro is heading the list of projects in Mongolia’s NDCs. Mongolia still lists Egiin Gol plant among projects that should start construction works in 2018.[iii]

Mongolian Government and the World Bank in September 2017 cancelled tenders for feasibility studies of two other dams and pledged to undertake a strategic regional environmental assessment (REA) of hydropower options and water management in Selenge-Lake Baikal Basin with full participation of Russian stakeholders. They also promised to undertake wide analysis of alternatives in energy and water sector. Scope of those promises is getting close to the SEA requested by the World Heritage Committee. The Rivers without Boundaries Coalition in July-August 2017 sent to all parties a proposal how to bridge remaining differences and make this assessment fulfill all major World Heritage requirements[iv]. However none of those actions promised by the WB has been implemented so far. Besides, the WB shows reluctance to review Mongolia’s policies (its Paris NDC being high priority) in the course of the REA.

Little progress has been seen on the Russian side. Following NGO criticism and an inquiry from UK Listing Authority the En+Group in its Prospectus for IPO in London acknowledged that it has to undertake measures to reduce negative impacts on the Lake Baikal. But nothing has been done to implement this promise and the Group has been actively bullying its CSO critics in press and denying its dams have any such negative impact. International marketing of "Green Aluminum" goes on despite obvious contradictions with good environmental practices.

In December 2017 the Russian Government extended permission to exceed previously established "maximum and minimum water levels in Lake Baikal" for another 3 years, thus subjecting ecosystem to additional stress from hydropower in times of severe drought. Currently observed "minimal flow volumes" of 1300 m3/sec are dictated primarily by needs of En+Group and are twice larger than would be the natural outflow from Baikal to Angara in winter this year.

At the meeting with President Putin in early 2018 local scientists complained about old-fashioned and compartmentalized "ecological monitoring" at Lake Baikal and were encouraged to propose improvements. Obvious lack of consistent monitoring makes us question validity the Russian Government claim that " up to date …anthropogenic influence has not led to significant changes in the hydrochemical regime on the scale of lake Baikal". One of the most alarming trends is that Russia does not analyze climate adaptation options in Lake Baikal management and therefore is less and less prepared to confront future challenges.

VI. Conclusions:

· The way society perceives threats can lead to ambiguous conclusions and priority-setting challenges. The role of NGOs could lie in promoting further development of civil society institutions capable of providing independent expert review, that ensures protection of World Heritage along with other universal values. Based on legally-defined procedures, these would thus serve as sources of sound evidence to inform society’s choices and well-founded solutions.

· Ill-designed "climate mitigation and adaptation " projects may present threat to OUVs of World Heritage sites and require special measures to prevent them ;

· Formal coordination mechanism between World Heritage convention, Bonn convention, and other biodiversity conservation conventions on one side and the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is highly advisable to harmonize their activities and ensure that adaptation and mitigation measures do not have any harmful impacts on World Heritage Sites[v];

· -In finalizing the methodology for countries’ NDC development, clear-cut criteria should be included for selecting environmentally acceptable low-carbon energy sources. The appeals made by civil society actors in different countries to the UNFCCC Secretariat calling for a ban on initiatives relying on energy sources which threaten ecosystems’ biodiversity[vi].

· Further expert support and discussion of this issue with the States Parties are required, in particular using the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action (NAZCA) of Paris Agreement and platforms for sharing the lessons learned and best practices of indigenous people and local communities[vii].

· We urge the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to address these matters and request Advisory Bodies to convene a workshop or expert meeting with participation of representatives of other international conventions’ secretariats and NGOs to discuss options for action, synergies and suggest concrete steps for efficient problem-solving.

· Our recommendations specific to Lake Baikal World Heritage Site are presented in our April 2018 submission to the World Heritage Center and IUCN also published in this volume.

[i] UNEP/CMS/Resolution 11.27/2014

[ii] Ivanov I.N. Hydropower resources of the Angara River and the natural environment. Novosibirsk: Science. Siberian Branch, 1991


[iv] Sergey Shapkhaev, Eugene Simonov, Pelagiya Belyakova, Sukhgerel Dugersuren. "How to Initiate Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Lake Baikal Basin?" pp 119-121 in Proceedings of the 2016 International conference "Civil Society and sustainable Development in the UNESCO World Heritage".Doempke Stephan, editor. Published by The World Heritage Watch .Berlin, 2017.

[v] Resolution Concerning World Heritage and Climate Change adopted by the 4th International NGO Forum on World Heritage at Risk.Villa Decius, Krakow, 1 July 2017;

[vi] NGO publications,,,

[vii] Climate Change Threats and Perceptions: Choice of Priorities and Role of NGOs. Sergey Shapkhaev. 2018.


Article published in 2018 World Heritage Watch Report   that will be presented to the public on Friday, June 8 in Berlin.