Since 1994, the European Union has been working on defining an action plan for the conservation of Lalibela. The European Union finally decided to fund a 9.1 million Euro project for the construction of large shelters over the churches in Lalibela to protect them from direct exposure to rain. The details of the project were evaluated by the World Heritage Centre in response to a request made by the Ethiopian Government in April 1997. In the World Heritage Bureau meeting (21st extraordinary session – Naples, 1997) the UNESCO experts described the construction works of shelters in Lalibela as ‘only a temporary answer’ and that only a recourse to the appropriate restoration techniques would lead to a solution that is ‘architecturally suitable’. The UNESCO experts recommended:
“a) to use suitable techniques of restoration using local workforce and materials;
b) to evaluate on site the need for technologically more advanced procedures and training for their use;
c) to organise a long term management of the site which takes the territorial problems into account”.
In 1999, the European Union organised an international architectural competition for the construction of the shelters in Lalibela. A design was chosen by a jury, on which UNESCO was represented, following which the tender entitled “Temporary shelters for five rock hewn churches in Lalibela” was launched in 2002 and re-launched in 2005; the bids are currently under evaluation since their submission date was the 27th of April 2006.
To answer the request of the World Heritage Committee in 1997, the European Union included in the project complementary conservation initiatives in which the involvement of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre was solicited.
The UNESCO World Heritage Centre conducted two assessment missions to evaluate its participation to the European Union funded project, in July 2004 and March 2005. These missions provided new technical data that justified a reassessment of the shelters proposal. Tests conducted by the UNESCO experts showed that humidity was an important factor in the decay of the structures, due to the presence of Montmorillonite -a component that belongs to the mineral group of clays which expands several times its original volume under humid atmospheric conditions- in the volcanic rock out of which the churches are hewn. Therefore, since these large shelters would not fully protect the churches from humidity and would prevent the rock from drying naturally, it was concluded that they were not an adequate answer to the current risks.
In addition, the UNESCO experts raised two important issues that are not addressed in the European Union funded shelters project: the environmental impact of the planned shelters and the feasibility of their dismantling.
In October 2005, the Director of the World Heritage Centre briefed the Ethiopian Authorities on the results of the recent studies conducted by the UNESCO Experts in Lalibela and expressed UNESCO’s concern with regard to the implementation of the planned shelters and to their environmental impact. This concern was also shared with the European Commission Delegation in Addis Ababa.
However, the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance and Economic Development asked the European Commission Delegation, in a letter dated 5 April 2006 to proceed with the implementation of the planned shelters.
The World Heritage Centre, ICOMOS and ICCROM consider that a detailed Impact Assessment Study of the proposed project should be undertaken and a restoration project formulated with a clear and feasible Action Plan, including a time-table for the dismantlement of the planned temporary shelters upon the completion of the restoration works.
The Impact Assessment Study should address:
a) The impact of the construction works, equipment and machinery on the historic resources and the stone bedrock, and in particular the impact of the foundations;
b) The channeling of rainwater from the shelters’ roof surfaces;
c) The risk presented by elements of the shelters dropping on the historic resources during/after the construction and during the dismantling of the shelters;
d) The maintenance plan of the new roofing and its durability;
e) The effects of the micro-climate created by the shelters on the historic resources;
f) The potential impacts of the eventual dismantlement of the temporary shelters.
The Action Plan for the restoration work and subsequent dismantlement of the planned temporary shelters should include a detailed description of the activities and timetable for the restoration of the site, as well as a timeframe for the dismantling of the planned temporary shelters and the identification of the required financial resources.
The Action Plan and necessary amendments to the project that arise from the Impact Assessment Study need to be prepared before the start of any construction works on the site.