Sharp rise in negative impacts on World Heritage sites, occurring despite limitations of COVID, is in particularly obvious for properties affected by dams and other water infrastructure. This is the first part of a brief presented to World Heritage Convention Committee today by the RwB.
In 2019 the RwB and World Heritage Watch presented at the 43rd Committee Session in Baku the “Heritage Dammed” Report, listing 50 such properties, while now in 2021, despite special decisions made by the Committee to prevent such damage, we can list up to 80 sites that have been threatened or already degraded by hydro-engineering projects. Only 14 affected sites are cultural properties and 5 are mixed, while the rest (75%) are natural properties. At least 15 of cases added to our list emerged\became evident during last 2 years between the 43rd and 44th sessions of the World Heritage Committee.
Water-infrastructure conflicts are widely spread globally, with some State-Parties being associated more than with one case. According to our records, there have been 3 and more properties threatened by Water infrastructure related to Australia, USA (only domestic impacts), Russia, India (both domestic and transboundary impacts from other riparian countries), China, Ethiopia, Mongolia, Turkey (both domestic and transboundary impacts on adjacent riparian countries). In addition Iraq, Tanzania, Spain, Nepal, Georgia, Romania and Cameroon each have two properties on our list. However number of cases does not indicate their relative severity.
Altogether 29% of natural properties have by 2021 experienced threats\damage from water infrastructure. This is notably higher than 25% observed in 2019, which clearly shows insufficient safeguards against such threats. 13% of all listed mixed properties are also subject to such impacts\threats. Only in 11% of cases situation has somewhat improved in last 2-3 years, while in more than 50% of cases it stayed highly problematic or deteriorated\worsened. In three thirds of such cases problems were caused by hydropower development. In most cases dams cause irreversible impacts on natural ecosystems that cannot be fully mitigated afterwards.
At the 44th Session the challenge was demonstrated by deliberate destruction of central elements of the Selous Game Reserve, facilitated by state companies and financiers from several State parties-Committee members, as well as continuous disruption of natural water regime in the Ahwar of Iraq, Luang Prabang and Lake Baikal show growing inability of the Convention mechanisms and parties to protect freshwater ecosystems lying at the heart of many World heritage sites. Two other properties having water infrastructure conflicts (and many other problems in addition to that), “Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid region” and “Volcanoes of Kamchatka”, in 2021 were recommended for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Kamchatka escaped such listing, partly, due to official notice delivered by the State Party of Russia on full indefinite cancellation of hydropower and other water infrastructure plans.
In some cases such as Vat Phou in Laos or Chitwan NP in Nepal the problems have not been revealed by monitoring and the State of Conservation reports do not mention potential threats from upstream or downstream dams, thus failing to resolve future problems preemptively. This is due to limited scope of reporting on SoC by State Parties and absence of mandatory analytical studies which could early discern potential conflict between planned development and World heritage values.
Some properties known to have problems with water infrastructure such as Danube Delta or Los Glaciares have not come to formal review for years. Normally no strategic analysis of development pressures is conducted at basin-level neither during the inscription process, nor during later monitoring by the States parties, leaving many impacts unidentified until it is too late. Thus at the 44rd Session a Georgian property, protecting endemic sturgeon as one of its OUVs was inscribed with evaluation not even mentioning obvious impacts from existing and planned dams upstream of the property on Rioni River. This makes us think that real number of potentially affected properties many become significantly higher as full information becomes available on each property.
We call for
special focused action of the Committee, UNESCO and parties to the Convention
to protection of rivers running through the properties, to ensure that
Convention effectively protects water bodies and freshwater ecosystems and the
World Heritage Committee does not tolerate or incentivize their destruction and
degradation. In 2019 we developed and presented to the Committee and Convention
Secretariat comprehensive recommendations, but serious discussion on how to
improve the situation has not even started yet.
Trends: Hydropower and World Heritage
Hydropower–related cases so far stand at 60 out of total of 80-82 properties with water infrastructure conflicts. However, some properties threatened by hydro may simultaneously also suffer from other types of water infrastructure.
Among the 59 properties having hydropower-related issues the following trends are observed:
In 32 cases situation in 2019-2021 continued to be highly problematic or changed to the worse due to hydropower impacts, lack of assessments or announcement of new construction plans.
Some properties are being physically destroyed and degraded due to hydropower impacts, such as Selous Game Reserve, Lake Baikal, Lake Ohrid, Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan PAs, Manas NP, Wood Buffalo NP, Ahwar of Iraq, etc. Other properties face increasingly uncertain future due to delayed assessments of new dams, either planned or even already under construction or operation (e.g. Ifugao Landscape, Durmitor, Luang Prabang, Victoria Falls, Iguacu\Iguazu, etc.)
There are also “unnoticed” cases of potential dam impacts so far neglected both by countries and the World Heritage Convention bodies, such as at Chitwan NP in Nepal, Los Glaciares NP in Argentina, Burkhan Khaldun Sacred Mountain in Mongolia, Vat Phou in Laos, Maloti –Drakensberg in South Africa, etc.
In 5 cases situations improved or conflict was resolved a least partially in last 3 years (Costa-Rica canceled Diquis Dam, Indonesian court stopped Tampur dam near the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra, Okavango Delta basin countries cancelled hydro and started cooperation on SEA, Panama promised not to go ahead with the third (!) dam in Talamanca Ridge Amistad Reserve, Zhupanova River Hydro project was cancelled according to the report from State Party of Russia. This adds to 6 “optimistic” cases identified in the “Heritage Dammed” Report for previous period.
In 23 cases of hydropower-related conflict we lack information to discern specific changes.
If compared to the 2019 “Heritage Dammed” report 17 hydropower cases were added to our list, from those 8 due to new acute conflicts\problems and the rest 9 were discovered retroactively as additional chronic\historic cases unearthed during our research. Often those are pre-2012 cases for which little or no current information is available in the official World Heritage Center database(which improved dramatically over past decade), but presence of serious problems are evident from old documents.
At least 30 hydropower cases definitely involved international finance and construction by foreign companies. (Selous, Lake Turkana, Los Glaciares, etc.) In 16 of those all or part of finance and\or contractors came from China, whose share is actually slightly lower than expected, since Chinese state-owned companies participate in at least 70% of on-going hydropower projects globally.
Other water infrastructure and World Heritage
In total we know 22 properties affected by non-hydropower water infrastructure\management issues (those which are also affected by hydro are included in statistics on hydro).
In past two years situation in 10 properties changed to worse due to impacts from water management infrastructure, with most concerning cases at Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex , Sundarbans, Landscapes of Dauria, Greater Blue Mountains and Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary In Senegal. For 8 properties information insufficient to discern changes.
At 4 properties in last 2-3 years situation changed to the better: Donana and Everglades improved management and deceased impacts, Kazakhstan stopped bridge construction at Talgar, Countries of trilateral Sangha so far abstained from waterway development.
From 12 new cases (compared to 2019 report) 7 represent new developments at new properties (e.g. iSimangaliso Wetland Park) and 5 added after retrospective review of historic cases (like Pantanal which has been facing multiple threats from water infrastructure for decades).
How the World Heritage Convention Can Protect Rivers from Destruction by Dams: THE FINAL REPORT . “Heritage Dammed” Water Infrastructure Impacts on world Heritage Sites and Free Flowing Rivers. https://www.transrivers.org/pdf/2019HeritageDammedFinal.pdf