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Reducing Disaster Risk at World Heritage Properties

World Heritage properties and heritage sites in general are exposed to the impacts of natural and man-triggered catastrophic events, which threaten their integrity and may compromise their value. The loss or deterioration of these outstanding properties has severely negative impacts on local and national communities, both because of their cultural importance, and because of their socio-economic value.
Picture painted by a primary school child in Sri Lanka after the tsunami in 2005

Why Disaster Risk Reduction?

The earthquake that occurred in Kathmandu, Nepal, in April 2015 or the fire at the Royal Palaces of Abomey, Benin, in January 2015 are high profile examples of the vulnerability of cultural heritage worldwide.

Natural heritage can, quite similarly, be threatened by such events. Disaster risk at heritage sites is in part a function of their exposure to hazards that are determined by their natural and technological environment (e.g. earthquake- or flood-prone areas, industrialized zones, human-activity etc.). However, disaster risk is not only a measure of external, potential threats, but also of the inherent vulnerabilities existing at any given site.

If on the one hand natural hazards are harder to foresee or control, on the other, vulnerabilities can be more easily addressed in an effort to lower disaster risk at any given location; this because vulnerability is related to a diminished capacity to anticipate, cope with, and respond to the impact of a given hazard, and is determined by factors that can be more easily influenced (e.g. risk awareness, existence of appropriate response capacities, socio-economic factors etc.).

It is therefore very important to invest in reducing disaster risks at World Heritage properties in order to mitigate the possible impact of major hazards on these precious resources.

Recent studies, moreover, have demonstrated how heritage, in both its tangible and intangible forms, is not simply a passive entity in the face of disaster, but has a significant potential for reducing disaster risks in general. This potential can be harnessed to reduce vulnerabilities, and thus negative impacts on lives, property, and livelihoods, before, during and after a catastrophic event.

Heritage plays a crucial role in fostering resilience by reducing vulnerabilities, and also by providing precious assets for the sustainable social and economic development of an affected region during its recovery phase, by attracting investment, creating employment, or providing renewable natural resources. This is why the protection of heritage in the event of disaster is of paramount importance.

The Need for Action

There are many ways in which heritage can assist in reducing the impact of disasters. For instance, research in areas affected by seismic activities has shown that buildings constructed with traditional techniques have proven very resilient to earthquakes when well maintained.

For example, many observers noted that the preservation of traditional mud-brick and timber-laced dwellings would have most likely reduced the tragic death toll of the 2003 Bam, Iran, earthquake, as nearly all casualties were reported to have occurred in buildings constructed less than 40 years before, using a non-engineered and uncontrolled mix of modern techniques. Similarly, an appropriate use of land and the conservation of forests have been identified as major contributors to preventing landslides and floods.

The recent case of the fishermen from the Andaman Islands, who survived the 2005 tsunami because they knew, from their forefathers, that when the sea withdraws, humans must do the same, is another testimony to the ways in which traditional knowledge can help save lives. Similar traditional knowledge ensures fire protection at the World Heritage site of the Kiyomizu Dera Temple of Kyoto, in Japan. Other examples can be found in all regions of the world. Heritage and the traditional skills that have maintained it over the centuries, therefore, can be essential to enhance prevention and mitigation of disasters.

Despite all this, many World Heritage properties do not have any established policy, plan or process for managing, i.e. reducing risks associated with disasters. Moreover, existing national and local disaster preparedness and response mechanisms usually do not include heritage expertise in their operations. As a result, hundreds of sites are critically exposed to potential hazards, while communities worldwide are not harnessing the full potential of their heritage, both tangible and intangible, for reducing disaster risk. 

This is why the UNESCO World Heritage Centre has started working, together with States Parties to the World Heritage Convention, Advisory Bodies and other partners, to integrate a consideration for heritage in DRR policies and programmes, and to strengthen preparedness for disaster risks at World Heritage sites. Actions undertaken include the development of a Strategy for Reducing Risks from Disasters at World Heritage Properties, the organisation of technical workshops and the publication of resource materials, as well as the provision of International Assistance mechanisms.

UN Policies and UNESCO Strategy

Heritage in DRR policies –
The Sendai Framework

In 1994, a UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction was convened to bring together government officials, non-governmental experts and other specialists, in order to discuss preparation, response, and mitigation measures to face the growing incidence of natural disasters. Since then, two other conferences have been held: one in Kobe, Japan (January 2005), which adopted the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005 – 2015, and one in Sendai, Japan (March 2015), that adopted the Sendai Framework for Action 2015 - 2030.

The latter in particular will orient Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) strategies and actions at the international and national level for the next fifteen years. It revolves around the following key pillars:

Priority 1
Understanding disaster risk

DRR should be based on an understanding of disaster risk in all its dimensions of vulnerability, capacity, exposure of persons and assets, hazard characteristics and the environment;

Priority 2
Strengthening disaster risk governance
to manage disaster risk

Clear vision, plans, competence, guidance, and coordination within and across sectors of risk governance, as well as participation of relevant stakeholders, are needed; 

Priority 3
Investing in disaster risk reduction
for resilience

Public and private investment in DRR is a cost-effective mechanism to enhance the economic, social, health and cultural resilience of persons, communities, countries and their assets, as well as the environment; 

Priority 4
Enhancing disaster preparedness
for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction

Empowering women and persons with disabilities to publicly lead and promote gender equitable and universally accessible approaches is essential. Disaster response is also a unique opportunity to “Build Back Better”, including through the integration of DRR into development measures.

This new international DRR policy, unlike its predecessors, includes a number of important references to culture and heritage (e.g. paras 4, 5, 14, 16, 16, 17, 19-c, d, 24-d, 29, 30-d, 33). The Sendai Framework advocates for a culturally-sensitive approach to DRR in general, and calls for the protection of cultural heritage from disaster risks across its four priority areas of action.

In this way, the document provides a solid foundation for UNESCO to advocate for the integration of culture and heritage within DRR, and to work in this area with the appropriate partners at regional and national levels.

Strategy for Reducing Risks from Disasters at World Heritage Properties

The Strategy for Risk Reduction at World Heritage Properties was presented and approved by the World Heritage Committee at its 31st session in 2007. Its priority actions, listed below, were structured around the five main objectives defined by the Hyogo Framework for Action, the main UN-wide policy on the subject of Disaster Reduction existing at the time of its conception (2005-2015).

  1. Strengthen support within relevant global, regional, national and local institutions for reducing risks at World Heritage properties;
  2. Use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of disaster prevention at World Heritage properties;
  3. Identify, assess and monitor disaster risks at World Heritage properties;
  4. Reduce underlying risk factors at World Heritage properties;
  5. Strengthen disaster preparedness at World Heritage properties for effective response at all levels.

The Strategy, in line with Article 5 of the World Heritage Convention as well as with the Strategic Objectives established by the Budapest Declaration, addresses disaster risks that threaten the integrity and/or authenticity of World Heritage sites. It is innovative in that it emphasizes, for the first time, the positive role that heritage can play in reducing the impact of catastrophic events through the goods and services it provides to local communities.

The purpose of the Strategy is thus to strengthen the protection of World Heritage and contribute to sustainable development by assisting States Parties to integrate a concern for heritage into their national DRR policies, as well as into the management plans for World Heritage properties.

World Heritage Committee Decisions

The following Decisions adopted by the World Heritage Committee are relevant to risks and disasters:

  • 38 COM 7, “State of conservation of World Heritage properties” (Doha, 2014) 
  • 36 COM 7C, “Reflection on the Trends of the State of Conservation” (Saint-Petersburg, 2012)
  • 35 COM 12E, “Global state of conservation challenges of World Heritage properties” (UNESCO, 2011) 
  • 34 COM 7C, “Reflection on the trends of the state of conservation” (Brasilia, 2010)
  • 34 COM 7.3, “Progress report on the implementation of the Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction at World Heritage properties” (Brasilia, 2010) 
  • 33 COM 7C, “General Decision on the State of Conservation of World Heritage properties” (Seville, 2009)
  • 31 COM 7.1, “Issues relative to the state of conservation of world heritage properties : the impacts of climate change on world heritage properties” (Christchurch, 2007) 
  • 31 COM 7.2, “Issues relative to the state of conservation of world heritage properties : strategy for risk reduction at world heritage properties” (Christchurch, 2007)
  • 30 COM 7.2, “Issues Related to the State of Conservation of World Heritage Properties: Strategy for Reducing the Risks from Disasters at World Heritage Properties” (Vilnius, 2006) 


UNESCO, in cooperation with its partner institutions, has organized a number of workshops on the subject of disaster risk reduction. These have resulted in proceedings and resource materials that may help managers of World Heritage properties and other cultural professionals in developing DRR strategies.


R-DMUCH Interactive Training Guide on Disaster Risk Management of Cultural Heritage in Urban Areas

Supported by ICCROM, UNESCO and ICOMOS, this guide is based on the experience gathered during the yearly International Training Course organized by the Institute of Disaster Mitigation of Urban Cultural Heritage at Ritsumeikan University (R-DMUCH) in Kyoto, Japan, since 2006. It is meant to assist institutions wishing to develop a similar training in their own context (e.g. category 2 centres, regional heritage institutions or UNESCO Chairs). A short movie accompanies the training guide. 

Read more

Post-Disaster Needs Assessment Guidelines.
Volume B. Social Sectors – Culture

The European Commission, the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) and the World Bank signed a joint declaration in 2008 committing to collaborate on a common approach to assessing, planning and mobilizing support for recovery to countries and populations affected by disasters. The main instrument for achieving this goal has been the development and use of Post-Disaster Needs Assessments (PDNAs) that bring together national and international stakeholders to align recovery efforts in a coordinated and effective way. A PDNA is a government led and owned exercise supported by the EU, the UN System and the World Bank. Through a PDNA, information is collected on the socio-economic effects and impacts of a disaster on key sectors, as well as the recovery needs, including the human development needs of the affected population. A single, consolidated assessment report is prepared and serves as a basis for formulating a comprehensive recovery framework. The findings guide the design and implementation of early- and long-term recovery programmes and help determine international development assistance needed. 

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Resource Manual on
‘Managing Disaster Risks for World Heritage’

Rather than presenting specific techniques for addressing various types of hazards, this Manual is meant to provide site managers and heritage administrators with a strong methodological framework to identify, assess and reduce disaster risks. Tested at some World Heritage properties, the Manual integrates some innovative approaches, such as the consideration of the positive contribution that heritage can make to reducing disaster risks in general, and the potential of using traditional knowledge in DRR strategies. 

Read more

World Heritage Review n°74 (January 2015)
on “Fostering Resilience”

This issue focusses on the risks that threaten World Heritage sites as well as on the different elements that good risk management must include: traditional protection systems, resource management, strategies based on traditional knowledge and communal management. It examines as well the diverse manners in which the protection of cultural and natural heritage can play a positive role in fostering the resilience of local communities.

Read more

International Assistance

The World Heritage Convention provides International Assistance to States Parties for the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage located on their territories and inscribed, or potentially suitable for inscription, on the World Heritage List. International Assistance has been provided to States Parties under the World Heritage Fund, in order to respond to disasters and protect World Heritage sites from disasters in two forms: Emergency Assistance, and Conservation and Management Assistance.

Emergency Assistance

Guidance on the use of Emergency Assistance can be found in Annex 9 of the Operational Guidelines, while the policies regulating its procedures are described in paragraph 241. According to this paragraph, "This assistance may be requested to address ascertained or potential threats facing properties included on the List of World Heritage in Danger and the World Heritage List which have suffered severe damage or are in imminent danger of severe damage due to sudden, unexpected phenomena. Such phenomena may include land subsidence, extensive fires, explosions, flooding or man-made disasters including war. This assistance does not concern cases of damage or deterioration caused by gradual processes of decay, pollution or erosion...."

It is therefore understood that Emergency Assistance should be provided only in case an imminent danger, posed by a natural or human-made hazard, is threatening the overall Outstanding Universal Value of a World Heritage property; this to prevent or mitigate its impacts on the site. Emergency assistance could also be provided to assess whether a site is exposed to an imminent threat.

Examples of projects funded through the Emergency Assistance:

Post-earthquake Assistance for the Field Investigation and Rehabilitation of the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries (China): after the earthquake in Sichuan, China, in 2008 and the ensuing severe damage to the ecological system of Panda Sanctuaries, assistance was granted to a project helping the management agency with disaster evaluation of the sites, needs assessment, and re-building of capacity of the sites management authority.

Emergency assistance request for Galápagos Islands (Ecuador): assistance was required for Ecuadorian authorities to mitigate the negative environmental impacts caused by the oil tanker accident that took place on 16th January 2001 near San Cristobal Island, in the Galapagos archipelago.

Conservation and Management Assistance

In situations where World Heritage properties have neither been affected by a disaster nor are under imminent threat, Conservation and Management Assistance allows for capacity-building and training in the context of preparedness. The principles regulating the award of this type of aid are outlined in paragraph 241 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

Examples of projects funded through the Conservation and Management Assistance:

Annual Seminary Workshop on Cultural Heritage Risk Prevention for the Caribbean and Central America (Dominican Republic): Assistance was granted to the Dominican Republic in 2002 in order to help it hold a follow-up meeting of a 1998 Risk Prevention for the Caribbean and Central America workshop, addressing damage caused by Hurricane George. The meeting aimed at (1) improving the capacity of site managers, (2) integrating risk prevention in official national programs, (3) improving preparedness for disasters, and (4) elaborating guidelines for risk prevention at specific sites.

Other types of assistance

The Rapid Response Facility (RRF): In addition to International Assistance, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, together with Fauna & Flora International (FFI), and the United Nations Foundation have been operating the Rapid Response Facility (RRF) since 2006. It is a mechanism to rapidly provide grants (up to 30,000 USD), and respond to threats to biodiversity at natural World Heritage sites. Grants can be evaluated and provided within eight working days.

The Heritage Emergency Fund (HEF): The Heritage Emergency Fund is a multi-donor fund for the protection of heritage in emergency situations. It was created by UNESCO to finance activities and projects that enable the Organization to assist its Member States in protecting natural and cultural heritage from disasters and conflicts by more effectively preparing for and responding to emergencies.

Cultural Emergency Response (CER): The Prince Claus Fund is a Dutch foundation aiming at increasing cultural awareness as well as promoting exchanges between the culture and the development sector. With this intention, the foundation initiated the Cultural Emergency Response (CER) programme in 2003, which provides grants to conduct basic reparation work, and to prevent further damage to cultural heritage.


International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM)

Disaster risk management is a priority for the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), one of UNESCO’s institutional partners and an Advisory Body to the World Heritage Convention.

International Council on Museums and Sites (ICOMOS)

The International Council on Museums and Sites (ICOMOS) is another institutional partner of UNESCO and an Advisory Body to the World Heritage Convention. Its International Scientific Committee on Risk Preparedness (ICORP) works specifically on disaster risk reduction for built cultural heritage

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Disaster Risk Reduction for World Heritage is one of the themes IUCN addresses through its work, as an Advisory Body to the World Heritage Convention and a member of the Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (PEDRR). DRR work in IUCN is part of its Ecosystem Management thematic area.

Ritsumeikan University Institute of Disaster Mitigation for Urban Cultural Heritage (D-MUCH)

The Institute of Disaster Mitigation for Urban Cultural Heritage, Ritsumeikan University, (D-MUCH), was named UNESCO Chair in 2006 and implements a yearly international training programme on disaster mitigation for cultural heritage. The World Heritage Centre contributes regularly to this programme, which has benefited hundreds of site managers over the past years, including many from World Heritage properties. 

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)

UNESCO works with UNISDR to ensure the integration of culture and heritage into international policies on DRR. Particular efforts have been made to include a concern for cultural heritage in the context of the UNISDR-led Campaign “Make My City Resilient”, in cooperation with ICOMOS.

Decisions (11)
Show 38COM 7
Show 37COM 7C
Show 36COM 7C
Show 35COM 7C
Show 35COM 12E
Show 34COM 7.3
Show 34COM 7C
Show 32COM 7B.129
Show 31COM 7.1
Show 31COM 7.2
Show 30COM 7.2