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  • Guest Editor collection: 20 May 2015 Rohit Jigyasu
    President of International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP)
    International Council on Monuments and Sites, International Committee on Risk Preparedness

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Rohit JigyasuPresident of International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP) International Council on Monuments and Sites, International Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICOMOS - ICORP)

Building Resilience by Reducing Disaster Risks to Cultural Heritage

Cultural heritage in its tangible as well as intangible manifestations is increasingly at risk from natural and human induced disasters. Climate Change is increasing the number of climate related disasters with devastating impacts on cultural heritage. Urbanization is among many other factors increasing the vulnerability and risks to cultural heritage. Considering various challenges, comprehensive disaster risk management plans need to be formulated for cultural heritage sites, taking into consideration multiple hazards and vulnerabilities to they are exposed. However many examples demonstrate that cultural heritage should not be seen merely as passive victims of disaster but also as assets that contribute towards building resilience of communities. Many initiatives such as policy documents, research and capacity building programmes have been undertaken by international, national and local governments as well as NGOs and larger civic society to reduce disaster risks to cultural heritage. However much more needs to be done to protect the present of our past for future generations.


The Scope of Cultural Heritage:

Cultural heritage is often associated with grandiose monuments and iconic archaeological sites that can hold us in awe of their beauty, history and sheer scale. However, the understanding of cultural heritage has undergone a marked shift during the last few decades in terms of what it is, why it is important, why it is at risk and what can be done to protect it. Cultural heritage today encompasses broad array of places such as historic cities, living cultural landscapes, gardens or sacred forests, technological or industrial achievements of the past and even sites associated with painful memories and war. Moreover collections of movable items within sites, museums, historic buildings, libraries and archives testify not only to the lifestyles of the royalty and achievements of great artists, but also to the everyday lives of ordinary people. At the same time, intangibles such as knowledge, beliefs and value systems are fundamental aspects of heritage that have a powerful influence on people’s daily choices and behaviors. Today as in the past, cultural heritage continues to perform its role as source of meaning and identity for communities.

Risks to cultural heritage from disasters:

Each year disasters caused by natural and human induced hazards cause enormous damage to historic buildings, urban areas, museums, libraries and archives depriving communities of their irreplaceable cultural assets. Moreover damages to cultural landscapes and local flora and fauna cause loss of valued ecosystem services thereby putting sustainability of local communities at risk. Often disasters also affect traditional knowledge, practices, skills and crafts that ensure cultural continuity, as well as the means for its protection and maintenance.

There are many examples that demonstrate the impact of disasters on cultural heritage. North Italy earthquake of 2012 caused widespread damage to the historic city of Ferrara while earthquake in Philippines in 2013 damaged historic Bohol churches. Floods in Eastern Europe in 2014 inundated many historic towns in Serbia and Croatia while Thailand floods in 2011 had dramatic impact on the World Heritage Site of Ayutthaya as stagnant water for days and weeks damaged the fabric of already fragile monuments. Also devastating fires in the World Heritage City of Lijiang in China in 2013 and 2014 damaged significant historic fabric. Needless to say, disasters not only cause material damage but also put the lives of visitors, staff and local communities in and around cultural heritage sites at risk. These also affect the livelihoods linked to cultural heritage and the revenues generated by the local government through tourism. Besides, the psychological impact on communities due to loss of cultural heritage to which they are closely associated, cannot be underestimated.

Climate Change is increasing the number of disasters and their devastating impacts. From 1988 to 2007, 76 percent of all disaster events were hydrological, meteorological or climatological in nature. These hazards are adversely impacting cultural heritage. Take for example the case of forest fires in Eastern Europe in 2008, which posed a high risk to the archaeological site of Olympia in Greece. Flash floods due to unprecedented heavy rains in India’s Uttarahand State in 2013 destroyed many heritage structures in the region, while storms in Western Europe in 2010 flooded many historic town centres. The likelihood of increased weather extremes in future therefore gives great concern that the number or scale of weather-related disasters will also increase thereby dramatically increasing their impact on cultural heritage.

Urbanization is also one of the key factors increasing the vulnerability and risks to people, properties, economy and heritage. With increasing urbanization, many cultural heritage sites are now located within dense urban areas with huge concentrations of people and restricted access. The historic cities of Kyoto in Japan and Kathmandu in Nepal illustrate this very well. Changes in populations, occupancy and economies are breaking the traditional urban boundaries, disturbing delicate ecological relationships and exposing these settlements to increasing risks from external hazards. Moreover gradual disappearance of traditional skills, crafts and cultural practices are putting living aspects of heritage at risk.

Considering these challenges confronting our cultural heritage, an integrated framework for disaster risk management of cultural heritage that takes into consideration multiple hazards and vulnerabilities to which sites are exposed, is indeed urgent need of the hour. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that very few heritage sites have formulated comprehensive disaster risk management plans that specify mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery measures, before, during and after disaster situations. Another major issue is lack of coordination between agencies responsible for heritage management and disaster risk reduction.

Contribution of Heritage to Resilience:

Although cultural heritage is increasingly vulnerable to disasters, it should not be seen merely as a passive victim of disaster. There are any instances where cultural heritage has in fact contributed towards building the resilience of the communities against disasters. Many traditional buildings performed well during the earthquakes in Gujarat (2001), Kashmir (2005) and Haiti (2010) demonstrating traditional knowledge for earthquake mitigation that has been accrued over generations through successive trials and errors. There are several cases where historic urban fabric characterised by series of interconnected courtyards has helped in emergency escape of residents from densely inhabited areas. Also plenty of examples demonstrate that heritage sites have served as refuge areas following disasters, for example following the great East Japan earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, many victims especially school children could take refuge in historic temples that were located on higher grounds. Many such temples also served as shelter for the affected people for weeks and months and were supported by local religious and community leaders.

Traditional social and religious networks and management systems have been very effective in community led initiatives for disaster risk management for cultural heritage as exemplified in the case of World Heritage of Shirakawa-Gu Villages in Japan where these have been successfully employed for monitoring and responding to the risk of fire. Cultural dimension in general and heritage in particular also plays an important role in sustainable recovery and rehabilitation of communities following a disaster. There are many examples to show that successful reconstruction projects have taken into consideration local building traditions and way of life through deeper engagement with communities. While we appreciate the positive role of heritage, we should not discount the fact that many cultural beliefs and practices result in fatalistic approach of interpreting disasters as ‘Gods will’ and undertaking no proactive measures to reduce disaster risks. Many heritage structures and urban areas are also vulnerable due to inherent defects in their design and construction or additions/alternations done over time.

Global initiatives:

To address these challenges at global level, several initiatives have recently been taken by various international organizations such as UNESCO, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

UNESCO has striven in recent years to promote the integration of a concern for culture and heritage within international DRR policies and programmes. In 2005 on the occasion of the 2nd World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Kobe Japan, World Heritage Centre in cooperation with the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, ICCROM and ICOMOS organized a thematic session on Cultural Heritage Risk Management. This led to the inclusion of reference to heritage in the Hyogo Framework for Action of 2005; probably the first time for heritage to find a place in a key international policy document on disaster risk reduction. Since that meeting key progress has been made in promoting DRR in the culture sector and, conversely to raise awareness of culture and heritage within the DRR sector and several international symposiums, and workshops have adopted recommendations and declarations.

A strategy for Risk Reduction at World Heritage Properties was presented and approved by the World Heritage Committee at its 31st Session in 2007. The strategy identifies five objectives and related actions that are ordered around the five priorities for action defined by the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015.

‘Heritage and Resilience’ initiative was launched by ICOMOS-ICORP in collaboration with UNESCO, ICCROM and UNISDR at the Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Geneva in May 2013. A special publication showcasing various case studies highlighting the role of cultural heritage in building the resilience of communities against disasters was also unveiled on this occasion.

To provide step wise guidance to managers of cultural heritage sites for developing disaster risk management plans for their sites as part of the overall site management systems, a World Heritage Resource Manual on ‘Managing Disaster Risks to World Heritage’ was jointly published by UNESCO, ICCROM, ICOMOS and IUCN in 2010. The manual has since formed the basis of several training programmes supported by international organizations such as UNESCO and ICCROM in various countries such as Mexico, Albania, Bulgaria, Vietnam, Indonesia and India.


    Managing disaster risks for world heritage

    International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM); International Council on Monuments and Sites, International Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICOMOS - ICORP); International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) | 2010

In matters of capacity building, a pioneering initiative has been undertaken by the UNESCO Chair established within the Institute of Disaster Mitigation for Urban Cultural Heritage at Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto (Japan), which in cooperation with ICCROM, ICOMOS-ICORP and the World Heritage Centre has organized an international training course on disaster risk management of cultural heritage since 2006. The target groups for this course include government institutions, departments, universities, NGOs and private consultants from cultural heritage as well as relevant disaster management fields. Based on the experience gained by conducting this course, a training guide has recently been published to help other interested organizations to set up similar training programmes elsewhere in the world. An interactive e-version of this guide would soon be available.

Several World Heritage Sites, such as the Complex of Hue Monuments, Hoi An Ancient Town, the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long in Hanoi (Vietnam) and the Historic City of Ayutthaya (Thailand) have also recently formulated disaster risk management plans and are in the process of implementing them.


    Risk preparedness: a management manual for world cultural heritage

    International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM); International Council on Monuments and Sites, International Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICOMOS - ICORP); United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Stovel, H. | 1998

Along with such training programmes, it is also critical to organize emergency response simulations/drills so that site staff and external response agencies are able to develop and regularly practice standard operating procedures. Japan is one country that has taken a lead in this area and every year during National Disaster Reduction Day on 26th January that ironically marks a fire incident that destroyed historic Horyu ji temple in 1949.

International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness of ICOMOS (ICORP) has also been working extensively towards promoting protection of cultural heritage places from effects of disasters and armed conflict. ICORP members have been actively involved in preparing guidelines, exhibitions and capacity building programmes. These recent initiatives show that we are indeed making progress in meeting the mammoth challenge posed by increasing disaster risks to cultural heritage.

Past experience shows that cultural heritage often gets destroyed due to uninformed action of national and international rescue and relief agencies, who demolish these structures due to absence of proper methodology for damage assessment that takes into consideration both safety as well as heritage values. Often standard principles for contemporary ‘engineered’ buildings are applied on historic and traditional ‘non-engineered’ buildings with the result that many of them are categorised as unsafe and therefore worthy of demolition.

To address this challenge, culture has recently been included as a sector in post disaster needs assessment to be carried out by international organizations such as World Bank. This is aimed at developing the sector recovery framework based on an integrated assessment including the disaster effects and impacts on cultural resources, civil society, infrastructures, as well as the performance of and access to cultural services and their management by national (central and local) authorities in culture sector, to support quality and sustainable interventions. This has already been tested in Bhutan following recent disaster in 2012.

To effectively reduce disaster risks to cultural heritage, agencies responsible for heritage conservation and management should be able to integrate disaster risk management within their site management procedures and practices.

On the other hand, organizations responsible for disaster management should be able to include heritage concerns within mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery strategies. This would necessitate interaction between decision makers, professionals and managers from heritage, disaster management and development sectors to help them understand the terminologies and hold better dialogue and coordination which is critical for effective disaster risk management. Moreover as Prof. Herb Stovel, a pioneer in this area very rightly remarked in 2010, heritage needs to be placed in the chain of command by ensuring that heritage expertise is present on relief teams, giving sufficient authority to heritage experts and establishing written protocols defining commitment to respect heritage.

Conclusion and View Points:

Although several initiatives for reducing disaster risks to cultural heritage are already under way, much more needs to be done. With a more concerted effort, the growing commitment for protecting heritage and leveraging the power of heritage for building resilience displayed by local and national governments and the local communities can be harnessed. These would necessitate:

  • Fostering partnerships that protect and draw on heritage for disaster risk reduction at local level
  • Consolidating available guidance and data on heritage vulnerability and risks with respect to cultural heritage sites at district and national levels
  • Building capacities at regional, national and local levels for various types of target groups including decision makers.
  • Undertaking further research and development of tools and guidelines for mitigating disaster risks to various typologies of heritage against various types of natural and human induced hazards.
  • Developing Innovative low cost and culturally sensitive technology for mitigating disaster risks to cultural heritage
  • Developing and implementing site specific disaster risk management plans for various types of cultural heritage e.g. archaeological sites, historic cities, vernacular, cultural landscapes, museum catering to various types of natural and human induced hazards such as earthquakes, floods, fires etc.
  • Aligning heritage needs in disaster risk reduction policies and plans at national and local levels and vice-versa.

Recently adopted Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 has recognized the role of cultural heritage in building resilience of communities. Point 30(d) therefore calls for the protection of cultural and collecting institutions and other sites of historical, cultural heritage and religious interest. Heritage is a cross-sectoral area that has strong links with various development sectors such as shelter, livelihoods, health, education, infrastructure and environment. These links should also be reinforced in the post-2015 agenda for sustainable development.

Additional literature of interest:

Some of the International Declarations related to this editorial's theme:

Related Sections on Preventionweb

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Rohit JigyasuPresident of International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP) International Council on Monuments and Sites, International Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICOMOS - ICORP)

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