Tourists camel trekking in the mountainous interior of Soqotra, 2020.
Blog Post

Cultural Heritage in a Changing Climate

Tourists camel trekking in the mountainous interior of Soqotra, 2020.

Climate change is the fastest growing threat to heritage sites across the world, and as such it was chosen as one of the themes for the 2022 Watch. As a member of the independent panel that gathered (remotely) over three days to make the final recommendation of sites for inclusion, I was impressed by the number of nominations we reviewed that had started to grapple with the complexity of the climate issues they face. Most that cited climate change were concerned with the current and future impacts of climate change, including coastal erosion and flooding, and extreme weather events and hotter environmental conditions, but several also addressed the role of cultural heritage as models for climate resilience.

Perhaps the 2022 Watch site under the most immediate threat is the Koagannu Mosques and Cemetery in the Maldives, where sea level rise threatens to inundate not just this important place but also much of the rest of this low-lying island nation in the Indian Ocean. Sea level rise is also the main concern for Hurst Castle in the United Kingdom, since erosion has already caused a major part of its wall to collapse. English Heritage, the national agency that manages Hurst Castle, hopes to use lessons learned there to help inform future management of other at-risk coastal properties.

Another site picked this year is Nuri in Sudan, an extraordinary collection of pyramids and other funerary monuments, the earliest of which date
from the eighth century BCE. Nuri sits in the Nile Valley and its underground chambers in particular are susceptible to flooding as the water table rises in response to climate change and poorly planned dams.

Understanding how to manage water resources in a rapidly changing climate is increasingly important as rainfall patterns change and extreme events, including droughts and storms, become more intense. There is much to learn from ancient water management systems, and two of this year’s World Monuments Watch sites may provide lessons that can be used for improving climate resilience in other places. In Nepal, the network of hitis (water taps and fountains) of the Kathmandu Valley have been supplying clean water to communities for more than 1000 years, and in addition to being a unique element of the region’s cultural heritage, they will be crucial to water security as the Himalayan climate continues to warm and glacier meltwaters change.

In Peru the Watch project for the Yanacancha-Huaquis Cultural Landscape aims to restore a pre- Incan water system consisting of small dams, canals, and agricultural terraces. These ancient water management technologies can tell stories of how people have adapted to climate changes in the past. In the archaeology and intangible heritage of the biologically unique islands of Yemen’s Soqotra archipelago, a World Heritage site in the Arabian Sea, there are also lessons to be learned about how communities have adapted to harsh climates and environments.

Although I have highlighted here a few of the Watch sites for which responding to climate change was a central element in the nomination, it is likely that almost all the monuments selected will be affected in some way. Whether the threat is from more frequent wildfires, coastal erosion, flooding, changed rainfall patterns, or impacts of changes in heat and humidity on building materials, understanding local climate impacts will be critical for the preservation and management of pretty much all monuments in the future. Cultural heritage itself is crucial for creating and maintaining climate resilience, and this too is reflected in the 2022 World Monuments Watch.