At its 27th session (UNESCO, 2003), the Committee reviewed the potential negative impact of a proposed highway (Keinawa Motorway) to be constructed in the vicinity of the property. It also requested the State Party to examine carefully the issue, in full consultation with all the concerned parties, with a view to preserve the authenticity and integrity of the World Heritage property. The Committee further requested the State Party to keep it informed of the status of the decision-making process regarding this project. These recommendations were reiterated in 2004. In its reports submitted to the World Heritage Centre in 2003 and 2004, the State Party reported that an Expert Committee had been established to review the proposal, and that the standard Environmental Impact Assessment process was being followed, including a wide consultation with the concerned communities. The Chair of the Expert Committee for the Yamato-Kita Road Construction and Public Involvement has also been appointed as Chair of the Expert Panel for Environmental Assessment. One of the options advanced by the Expert Committee was the execution of the highway underground.
In July 2005, the World Heritage Centre received a report from the NGO “Society for Protecting the Heijyokyo Capital Site”, reiterating concern for the impact of the proposed highway on the World Heritage property, including its underground features. The report emphasized in particular three issues that would need to be addressed. These were:
a) Rationale for the construction of the expressway. The document claimed that the accident rates and traffic volumes figures used to justify the need for an express way are in reality much lower, thus questioning the very necessity for such infrastructure;
b) Structural impact of the proposed tunnel solution (one of the options considered). The digging of a tunnel underground might affect the levels of the ground water, thus causing soil settlements under the historic monuments of Ancient Nara, whose stability might in turn be compromised;
c) The lack of a truly open consultative process, involving local residents and other concerned stakeholders.
The World Heritage Centre forwarded this report to the concerned national authorities, on 16 September 2005, requesting their comments. The State Party replied by its letter dated 1 February 2006. In its response, the State Party addressed the three issues raised by the NGO as follows:
a) On the question of the rational for the construction of the highway, the State Party questioned the methodology adopted by the NGO to collect data concerning traffic volumes and accident rates, and reiterated the need for the new infrastructure;
b) The State Party also provided information on the possible fluctuation of the groundwater level resulting from the construction of the highway, stating that this will not cause any adverse on the World Heritage property, based on accurate studies carried out by experts from the concerned national authorities;
c) On the issue of the public consultation, the State Party confirmed that all the standards legal procedures had been followed. In particular, information on the project was made public on three occasions (as well as on a web-site) and seven questionnaire-based surveys were conducted among residents, totalling 4,693 answers. 79% of the residents allegedly felt the need for road improvements in the northern Nara prefecture due to traffic congestion. Almost 4 million brochures and handouts on the project were also distributed. The Government of Japan, moreover, had consulted six times with the NGO “Society for Protecting the Heijyokyo Capital Site”, including during public events.
Finally, the State Party confirmed that the results of the Environmental Impact Assessment under preparation will be made public as soon as completed.
ICOMOS appreciates the efforts of the Government of Japan to clarify the nature of the traffic congestion which the new highway is meant to address, and to analyse the impacts of the tunnel building on the water table for the chosen route. Many of the points made by the NGO and by the State Party in their respective documents, however, are hard to evaluate without more time and more information. One way of facilitating the necessary internal debate could be to take the process for the Environmental Impact Assessment outside the Government, in a neutral fashion, by consultants hired for that purpose.
It would be also important to ensure that the Environmental Impact Assessment includes consideration of alternative options for the highway with a cost-benefits analysis based on an evaluation of the impact on the World Heritage property.
ICOMOS would further suggest that the State Party describe the monitoring procedures that they would put in place to measure possible groundwater fluctuations during the building of the tunnel and subsequent operation of the highway, and the emergency mitigation measures that would be in place should fluctuations threaten the sub surface wood on the World Heritage property. ICOMOS would however request the State Party to demonstrate that the option being developed offers least potential impact to the Nara World Heritage property, and to assure the World Heritage Committee that the outstanding universal value of the property is not at any risk.