From Palmyra to Yellowstone, global heritage remains at risk

As of June 2016, there are 48 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in danger; climate change is threatening to put many more sites onto that same list.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

In this Thursday, April 14, 2016 file photo, Russian soldiers stand on a road as smoke rises from a controlled land mine detonation by Russian experts inside the ancient town of Palmyra, Syria.

Updated Jul 7, 2016

With UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, set to meet in Istanbul on Sunday to review candidates to join its prestigious World Heritage Listranging from 350-million-year old fossils to works by Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusierit is essential to cast an eye on global heritage under threat. There are at least 48 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world which could disappear into the annals of history over the next few generations. 

Some man-made, some natural wonders, these locations are either in war-torn or poverty struck areas. Many sites have already been destroyed in attacks by groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or DAESH in Syria. "What happened in Syria and Iraq as well as in Mali and Afghanistan was so shocking that the process of preparing UNESCO's lists has become of great political importance," said UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova.

Earlier this year, DAESH blew up the ancient Nabu temple in Iraq. In 2012 a Malian jihadist blew up nine mausoleums and part of Timbuktu's famous Sidi Yahia mosque. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the Taliban destroyed the giant Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.

But now, climate change is also threatening to add more tangible history to the list of World Heritage in Danger.

Here we take a look at four sites on the in danger list and three other locations threatened by climate change.  

Church of the Nativity, Palestine

The Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route in Bethlehem is located in Palestine. Sitting 10 kilometres south of Jerusalem, the site is identified by Christian tradition as the birthplace of Jesus since the 2nd century.

Birthplace of Jesus: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem. (UNESCO)

The main church's roof structure is highly vulnerable because of lack of maintenance and repair.

According to the World Heritage list website, increasing urbanisation is adding to the damage. It states "an increase in the number of vehicles, inadequate parking, and small industries within the historic city have resulted in a polluted environment that is negatively affecting the facades of both the Church of the Nativity and other buildings along the Pilgrimage Route."

New constructions are also having a negative impact on the traditional nature of the area near the Church of the Nativity, interfering with the views of the historic venue. 

Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem. (UNESCO)

Simien National Park, Ethiopia

Simien National Park in Ethiopia, part of Eastern Afromontane archipelago, has been on the World Heritage list since 1978 and on the in danger list since 1996. 

The peaks and valleys are the result of natural erosion and are breathtaking to behold. Its natural undulation includes precipices which drop 1,500 metres.

Considered a biodiversity hotspot, Simien is also home to some extremely rare animals such as the Gelada baboon, the Simien fox and the Walia ibex, a goat that only lives in that region. 


In the 90s, the threats to Simien were categorised as "civil unrest". Threats to its integrity and biodiversity have only increased over time. Since then factors impacting the park have come to include (as per the in danger list):

  • Ground transport infrastructure
  • Identity, social cohesion, changes in local population and community
  • Land conversion
  • Livestock farming / grazing of domesticated animals
  • Other Threats: Declining populations of Walia ibex, Ethiopian wolf and other large mammal species

Many of these are a direct result of human intervention. At least 80 per cent of the park at the time of its inscription was under human use of one form or another. Human settlement, cultivation, soil erosion, agricultural and pastoral activities, cultivation of a vast area of the property and grazing of a large number of animals have severely affected the natural values of the park.

Simien National Park (Ethiopia) (UNESCO)

The ancient city of Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra located in Syria houses the ruins of a great city, once one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. Palmyra was part of the ancient Silk Road and according to the Guardian, rose to great prosperity because of its tolerant, multicultural and pluralistic outlooks towards trade and worship.  

The site of Palmyra in Syria. (UNESCO)

The ancient city was captured by DAESH during the Syrian conflict in 2015 and reclaimed by regime forces in 2016. While substantial sites and artefacts survived the onslaught, the most famous temples of Bel and Bal Shamain and the Arch of Triumph were largely reduced to rubble.

A 2010 view shows the intact Temple of Bel in the historic Syrian city of Palmyra. The temple, an ancient fusion of Near Eastern and Greco-Roman architecture named for the Mesopotamian god Bel, was dedicated in 32 AD.

UNESCO is currently assessing the damage and cost of restoration for the site. Some experts are hopeful Palmyra can be restored through some recreation; others like Bokova are cognizant of the irreparable loss if even one statue is destroyed. Destroying a people's identity by wiping their history off the face of this earth defines efforts towards ethnic cleansing, Bokova explained in an interview with the Guardian. 

The remains of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. April 1, 2016.

Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan

They survived war and weather for over 1,500 years, the Bamiyan Buddhas. Carved out of a cliff face by monks—over 50 and 30 metres in height respectivelythe two sandstone Buddhas would benignly tower over the local populace in Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan.

Then in 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Omar ordered their destruction along with other statues thought to be idols. 

It wasn't easy; the Taliban tried anti-missile and tank fire before they drilled holes into the base of the statues and packed them with dynamite. The entire effort took over two weeks, destroying history which spans centuries.

The 53-metre (175-foot) tall Buddha statue located in Bamiyan, about 150 kilometres (90 miles) west of the Afghan capital Kabul. November 28, 1997.

The archaeological Bamiyan site features numerous caves forming a large ensemble of Buddhist monasteries, chapels and sanctuaries along the foothills of the valley dating from 3 CE to 5 CE.

The site is in a fragile state of conservation, according to the World Heritage in Danger website. It has suffered from abandonment, military action and dynamite explosions.

Villagers gather to watch a theatre play in front of the empty seat of the Buddha that was destroyed by the Taliban in Bamyan, central Afghanistan. August 24, 2005.

The major dangers include the risk of imminent collapse of the Buddha niches, further deterioration of still existing mural paintings in the caves, looting and illicit excavation. Parts of the site are inaccessible due to the presence of antipersonnel mines.

Over the years, there have been talks of reconstructing the Buddhas, filling the two gaping holes but the international community remains at odds with the idea. Nonetheless, construction of a $5.4 million Bamiyan Culture Centre is expected to start towards the end of 2016. A team from Argentina has been selected to design the centre within view of the cliffs which once housed the Bamiyan Buddhas.

The following three sites are among 31 heritage properties at risk from climate change and tourism in its current form, identified by UNESCO, United Nations Environment Programme and Union of Concerned Scientists in their report World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate (2016).

Galapagos Islands

Around 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador are the Galapagos Islands. The archipelago of 18 large islands, three small ones and more than 100 islets and rock, is home to a stunning diversity of species.

Out of the 500 vascular plants on the island, 180 are found nowhere else in the world. Due to its extreme isolation, many unusual species have evolved on these islands, including giant tortoises, marine iguanas, and flightless cormorants. Illegal fishing, the introduction of alien and invasive species, population growth, and tourism have been the main threats to the biodiversity of the island, shared the report.

But now climate change is also having an impact. "Rising sea levels, warming oceans and atmosphere, ocean acidification and changes in rainfall" can have negative consequences for the islands’ ecosystems.

Galapagos Islands. (UNESCO)

The report identified changes in the El Nino oscillation which "dominates climate variability on an inter-annual basis" as possibly devastating.

El Nino events such as those in the early 80s and late 90s disrupted the entire food change around the Galapagos; from plankton to small fish to algae. 

According to the report, this resulted in an up to 90 per cent decline in iguana populations, 75 per cent in penguin and 50 per cent in sea lion populations. These are just few of the species impacted, not the least of which is the giant tortoise. 

A Galapagos tortoise walks on a grassy area in San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands Ecuador. July 15, 2015.

Yellowstone National Park, USA

Yellowstone is the world's first national park. It covers 9 000 square kilometres in the Northern Rocky Mountain and contains more than half of the world's geothermal features, hot springs, mud pots, steam vents and geysers, including the Old Faithful geyser.

Yellowstone National Park (United States of America) (The World Heritage Collection, David Muench)

But now scientists have significant concerns about the growing signs of climate change in the park. Warming has already caused winter in the park to become shorter, with less snowfall.  

The warmer weather is also causing lakes and wetlands in Yellowstone to shrink. Scientists estimate 40 per cent of the wetlands and lakes could be lost under these conditions.  

Warmer weather is also playing a huge factor in fires. 

Early snowmelt, warmer temperatures and a longer fire season are predicted to increase the annual area burned by fires by 600 per cent or more. Ann Rodman, a senior park scientist, says in the report: “This is bigger than anything we’ve ever faced … the potential is out there to affect everything you see when you come to Yellowstone.”

Streaks of sunlight pierce through dark blue storm clouds over the Fountain Paint Pot Geyser field in the Yellowstone National Park Friday, August 15, 1997.

Ilulissat Icefjord, Greenland

Ilulissat Icefjord is located 400 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle in West Greenland. It is also one of the few places in the world where climate change is helping drive tourism, according to the report, so people can see IIulissat before it belts. 

The site is where the massive Jakobshavn Glacier meets the sea in Disko Bay. Jakobshavn is one of the fastest-moving glaciers in the world, and has recently accelerated significantly, and the ice sheet is thinning. Its increased flow rate is associated with both oceanic and atmospheric warming. 

In this July 19, 2011 photo, a large melt pool forms in the Ilulissat icefjord below the Jakobshavn Glacier, at the fringe of the vast Greenland ice sheet.

The Arctic is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the globe, says the report. If the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt, they hold enough water to raise global sea levels by nearly 65 metres.

Other than providing an insight into the last ice age, the icefjord is also a freezer of sorts, preserving organic material of archaeological significance. 


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, is a specialised agency of the United Nations created more than 50 years ago.

UNESCO’s Constitution states: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that defences of peace must be constructed.” It was adopted by the London Conference in November 1945 and took effect on November 4, 1946.

As of March 16, 2016, it has 188 member states. UNESCO’s main objective is to contribute to peace and security in the world by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science, culture and communication.

What Is the UNESCO World Heritage Mission?

Egyptian temples at Abu Simnel were threatened by the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1959. Various countries contributed $50 million to help Egypt relocate the temples to safety. 

Following this, USA called for a World Heritage Trust in 1965. In 1972, UNESCO passed the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. UNESCO World Heritage is the response.

According to the Convention, countries recognise the sites located on their territory which have been inscribed on the World Heritage List, without prejudice to national sovereignty or ownership, constitute world heritage, "for whose protection it is the duty of the international community as a whole to cooperate."

The convention was signed by 192 countries, to provide the required financial and intellectual resources to protect World Heritage sites. Without the aid of other nations, some sites with recognised cultural or natural value would deteriorate or disappear, often due to lack of funding to preserve them.

The World Heritage List

There are currently 1,031 sites on the World Heritage List, of which 802 are cultural sites, 187 are natural and 32 mixed cultural and natural heritage sites. Currently, 48 sites are described as being in danger including cultural heritage and natural heritage.

TRTWorld and agencies