On 29 January 2008, the World Heritage Centre received a report from the State Party, dated 22 January 2008,which included the final version of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Yamato-Kita Road (almost 2000 pages in Japanese, with a summary in English) and a note on the “Basic Concept of the Revised Plan for the Commemorative Events of the 1300th Anniversary of Nara Heijo-kyo Capital”. These documents were complemented by separate statements of the views of the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan (Bunka-cho), the national governmental body responsible for World cultural Heritage properties, on the two issues.
a) The Yamato-Kita Road
In its report, the State Party informs that the Environmental Impact Assessment procedure for the Yamato-Kita Road is at its final, or “Step 3” stage, in which the Expert Study Committee for the EIA has made the changes required and produced its final version on 26 December 2007. This final version is due to be submitted to the Nara Prefecture Urban Planning Council and the Kyoto Prefecture Urban Planning Council respectively in February and March 2008, when a final decision on the Yamato-Kita Road would be made, if the members of the Councils reach an agreement.
The final EIA confirms the choice of the Saikujo-Saho route for the Yamato-Kita Road, which runs underground outside the core area of the property and, for a stretch of almost 1,5 Km, along the periphery of its buffer zone. With regard to the fluctuation of the water-table levels possibly caused by the infrastructure, which might have posed a threat to the archaeological remains, a study conducted by an independent Committee has determined that this will be minimal, and in any case lower than seasonal fluctuations. Notwithstanding this, the EIA indicates that extra measures will be taken to decrease any impact on the fluctuations in the groundwater level by employing the so-called Groundwater Flow Preservation Method during the construction. Moreover, a special “Groundwater Monitoring Study Committee” has been established to devise the appropriate monitoring system and risk mitigation measures that might be required to prevent any future damage to the precious relics.
With regard to the possible impact on buried cultural properties resulting from open-cut sections of the highway (i.e. about 160 m along the edge of the buffer zone of the property), the EIA envisages the conducting of preventive archaeological soundings and rescue excavations, if required, based on the existing Law for Protection of Cultural Properties. The report notes, however, that the boundaries of the buffer zone were defined to ensure control on the visual integrity of the landscape surrounding the core area of the property (hence the tunnel and the open trench which will not be visible from the property), not out of concern for potential archaeological remains. As concerns the planned ventilation tower in the buffer zone, it will be only 8-meter high, which is within the regulations stipulated by the Nara Prefecture for the area.
In its statement accompanying the EIA, Bunka-cho confirms that in its view, following careful analysis of the question, “the Yamato-Kita Road Project will not cause any alteration to the ground water levels in areas of archaeological significance or any negative impact on buried archaeological remains and landscape, which could result in loss of the value as a World Heritage property”.
b) Commemorative Events of the 1300th Anniversary of Nara Heijo-kyo Capital
Regarding the events which are scheduled to take place in 2010,the State Party reported on a new, revised plan with respect to that presented to the World Heritage Committee in 2007.The changes to the previous proposal appear to downsize the scale of the event in a number of ways: the expected number of visitors during the year will be reduced from five million to two and a half million; the foreseen number of temporary structures will be “drastically reduced”; and no temporary railway platform and pedestrian bridge will be constructed. Moreover, instead of holding a six-month long exhibition within temporary pavilions at the Nara Palace Site, seasonal events will be planned mainly in the Nara Palace Site precinct, utilizing the existing facilities, including the reconstructed Former Imperial Audience Hall, which is due to be completed by 2010. The new plan for the celebrations also includes commemorative events to be held at other World Heritage properties of the province. Bunka-cho considers the proposal acceptable from the point of view of the conservation of the property, and desirable as a means of promoting cultural heritage to visitors.
c) Legal protection
In November 2007, the World Heritage Centre received information suggesting that the Japanese Government was envisaging modifying the legal status of the Nara Palace Site, by making it a “National Government Park”, under the authority of the Ministry of Public Works (and the continued supervision of Bunka-cho). This change, allegedly, would have resulted in additional resources made available for the management of the property, which could have supported a project for the reconstruction of some elements of the ancient complex, after the completion of the Former Imperial Audience Hall. No reference is made to these allegations in the State Party’s report. Separately, however, the State Party informed the World Heritage Centre that information on the above would be submitted later in 2008, as soon as the related administrative and legal aspects are clarified.
The World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies consider that the final line of the proposed route of the Yamato-Kita Road does not impact negatively on the outstanding universal value and integrity of the property. They note that the EIA gives assurances that the project will not impact adversely on ground water levels or archaeological remains.
Concerning the commemorative events, it is noticed that the scope of these has been reduced and does not appear to include any new reconstruction projects.
The World Heritage Centre and the Advisory Bodies would welcome additional information on the proposed National Government Park and its implications.