Our World Heritage is deeply linked to rivers and they need protection from dams (commentary)


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  • This month’s World Heritage meeting represents a crucial opportunity for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) to protect rivers and World Heritage sites and the cultures that depend on them.
  • The World Heritage Center is responsible for protecting sites around the world considered to be of the highest cultural and natural value. The growing impact of dams on World Heritage sites has sparked a global uproar, most recently in the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and Luang Prabang in Laos.
  • Beyond the role of the World Heritage Center in protecting existing sites from damage, governments, financiers and the hydropower industry should adopt clear no-go zones in, near or impacting our sites in the world. World Heritage.
  • This article is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

When the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) meets from July 16 to 31, it will be tasked with addressing urgent threats to some of the world’s most treasured sites of invaluable natural and cultural heritage. Among the challenges facing the committee is the growing threat that dams pose to some of the world’s most iconic World Heritage sites.

A recent study found that more than 500 dams under construction or planned worldwide will be built in protected areas, while dams and other water infrastructure projects threaten at least 80 World Heritage sites. This number is only expected to increase as dam developers, faced with a declining number of viable hydropower sites, increasingly pursue reckless projects like the Batang Toru dam, which experts say could precipitate the extinction of the newly discovered Tapanuli orangutan. The growing impact of dams on World Heritage sites has sparked a global uproar, most recently in the case of Selous Game Reserve, a World Heritage site recognized as a biodiversity hotspot and one of the most large protected areas for African fauna. The decision of the Tanzanian government to proceed with the construction of the Julius Nyerere dam in Selous has caused a unpublished UNESCO proposal to remove it completely from the list.

Luang Prabang: An invaluable cultural and natural heritage under threat

Meanwhile, history is likely to repeat itself in Laos, where the Luang Prabang dam project threatens the historic city it is named after. Luang Prabang, the former royal capital, sits in the lush valley at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers in northern Laos. Listed as a World Heritage Site in 1995, Luang Prabang is an astonishing fusion of French colonial architecture and the sun-drenched domes of Buddhist temples, which exist “in perfect harmony with nature”. The culture of Luang Prabang has developed as a thriving city inextricably linked to a living river. You cannot both preserve the heritage and culture of a World Heritage city while destroying its raison d’être. Heritage specialist Minja Yang, who in 1991 was UNESCO’s Head of Mission for the Safeguarding of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and former Director of UNESCO in New Delhi, explained: “UNESCO has signed the agreement. of 1995 with the Laotian government on the basis of the unique links between nature, culture and history along the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers”.

Despite this World Heritage status, the Mekong River, which crosses and is an integral part of the history, culture and way of life of Luang Prabang, is under the threat. A Thai-led consortium plans to build a massive hydropower project 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) upstream from Luang Prabang. Considering the size and location of the proposed dam (including its proximity to the city of Luang Prabang), the dam is classified as an “extreme risk”. The dam will have major environmental impacts on the river system and its surroundings and as the 2020 Mekong River Commission report states, “Any impact from a dam failure or flood operations can also result in the loss of human life for the citizens of many countries. For the purposes of this technical review report, the impacts on Luang Prabang will therefore be considered “transboundary in nature” as this will be of concern to the global community.

Concerned about the potential negative impacts of the Luang Prabang dam on the outstanding values ​​of the World Heritage site, the World Heritage Center in 2012 requested the government of Laos to undertake and submit a heritage impact assessment. However, nine years later, no such evaluation has been carried out and, in the draft decisions published at the end of June, the The WHC recommended to the government of Laos stop all construction activities until a full heritage impact assessment is completed.

Environmental and social impact assessments undertaken to date have also proven to be flawed with many shortcomings. Neighboring countries that share the Mekong River are calling on Laos to conduct more rigorous transboundary impact assessments.

Beyond the World Heritage site, the dam threatens the rich biodiversity and ecological integrity of the Mekong River. The Mekong is the largest inland freshwater fishery in the world. Feeding more than 65 million people living in its basin, river fishing supplies its communities with up to 80% of their animal protein needs. Yet this magnificent and flourishing river system, with aquatic biodiversity just beyond the Amazon, is increasingly threatened by poorly designed dams, many of which are not needed to meet the region’s energy and water needs. The Luang Prabang Dam, for example, plans to sell electricity to Thailand, a country that has a massive oversupply of electricity (the equivalent of at least 10 Luang Prabang dams). Decision making on the Mekong dams is done on a “project by project” basis, ignoring the larger context and lacking the foresight necessary to manage the situation. cumulative and transboundary impacts of a rapidly increasing cascade of existing and planned dams. Local communities, who are most affected by the dams, have been largely excluded from decision-making processes.

A view of the Mekong River in Luang Prabang in Laos. Photo by Allie Caulfield, licensed under CC By 2.0.

Now is the time to re-engage and enforce the protection of our World Heritage

Luang Prabang is too important for our World Heritage. The Laotian government should stop this dam project and focus investments on truly renewable energy projects that benefit the local economy while protecting important river heritage and ecosystems and communities. The World Heritage Committee should call on the Laotian government to rethink this risky and destructive project.

The Luang Prabang Dam is just the latest in a long line of destructive dams that endanger world heritage, and more needs to be done globally to prevent this recurrence. The World Heritage Committee has expressed concern about the growing threat posed by dams, and adopted a resolution in 2016, calling for a ban on dams within the boundaries of World Heritage sites, as well as for any dam having an indirect impact on these sites to be “rigorously assessed”. This has led one of the world’s largest dam builders, China Three Gorges, to commit to embracing this commitment in its policies, but unfortunately it remains the exception rather than the rule.

Ultimately, the responsibility for protection rests with the States Parties, but their responsibility must also be shared with the financiers who fund these projects and the companies who build them. It is telling that the International Hydropower Association, an industrial body created to clean up the image of the industry and which has strongly promoted the false idea of ​​“sustainable hydropower”, has remained largely silent on the issue of world heritage despite holding its last meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. For meaningful change, it is the responsibility of the dam industry as a whole to stop projects impacting World Heritage sites and to establish and respect clear no-go zones prohibiting dams in, near, or having an impact on World Heritage sites.

World Heritage sites, like Luang Prabang, are recognized as such because they are irreplaceable and threatened. Places like Luang Prabang not only offer us a glimpse into our past, but a lasting example of what life can be like for communities living in harmony with nature. We should not play with its future by forcing unnecessary and risky infrastructure projects that undermine the fabric of its existence, rather Luang Prabang should be cherished and protected as an inspiring place for a reinvented future in balance with nature.

Banner image caption: An aerial view of the city of Luang Prabang in Laos. Image courtesy of People’s Mekong Network

Gary Lee is South East Asia Program Director for International Rivers, Sarinee Achavanuntakul is Research Manager for Fair Finance Thailand and Eugene Simonov is Co-Founder, Coordinator and Conservation Science Expert for Rivers without Boundaries.

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