UNESCO in partnership with Think City, a community-based urban rejuvenation organization in Penang, held a conference entitled “UNESCO Regional Conference on Harmonizing Actions to Reduce Risks for Cultural Heritage in Asia and the Pacific” from 7 - 9 December 2015 at Hotel Jen in Penang, Malaysia.
The conference provided a platform from which to raise awareness across several disaster, humanitarian, and development agencies regarding the importance of protecting cultural heritage. Within a framework of disaster and armed conflict risk mitigation, UNESCO showcased existing and emerging best practices and standards for enhancing the resilience of immovable/movable cultural heritage, identified current obstacles and high-priority points for the integration of culture and heritage into regional initiatives and institutional frameworks for managing risk mitigation (including post-conflict situations), and promoted partnerships at the national level among heritage agencies and disaster/humanitarian response agencies as well as at the regional/international level among key disaster management agencies.
Participants at the conference were representatives from a number of key stakeholder organizations that are currently tackling issues surrounding disaster risk reduction in the Asia – Pacific region within a cultural heritage context. Specifically, these organizations are UNESCO, ICOMOS – ICORP, ICCROM, as well as several partner agencies, namely UNISDR (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction), IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies), ADPC (Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre), and UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). From UNESCO Jakarta, Diana Setiawati and Elisa Sutanudjaja of the Culture Unit served as representatives. Along with them, two delegates from Indonesian authorities – Sri Patmiarsi Retnaningtyas from the Ministry of Education and Culture, and Gita Yulianti Suwandi from the National Disaster Management Agency – were also in attendance.
During his opening remarks, the Chief Minister of Penang, HE Lim Guan Eng,, highlighted that the Asia – Pacific region continues to overlook issues concerning cultural heritage when preparing for and recovering from disasters and armed conflicts. Despite the relative geographic safety of Penang, the cultural heritage of Malaysia and its neighbours remains fairly vulnerable and susceptible to risk. For this reason, the stakeholders have much to learn about and prepare for in the event of a disaster. Without having adequate policies, protocols, and resources in place when planning for or responding to disasters and armed conflicts, precious heritage sites are subject to direct damage, looting, and illicit trafficking.
During the three-day conference, various best practices and case studies were presented by the key speakers, including case studies from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka on how their respective cultural heritages were protected during conflict situations, a case study from Japan about the integration of cultural heritage into their national disaster management plans/policies, as well as several other interesting topics. On the second day of the conference, participants were divided into four workgroups. Each separate workgroup referenced one of four priority areas that have been defined within the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. These four priority areas are: 1) Understanding disaster risks, 2) Strengthening disaster risk governance, 3) Investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience, and 4) Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to “Build Back Better” in recovery and rehabilitation. The results from each workgroup discussion were presented on the final day of the conference, which was referred to later as the “Draft Outcome Document.”
Ms. Gita Yulianti Suwandi, an Indonesian authority delegate who currently serves as a Disaster Risk Management Analyst, believes that the information obtained from the conference will be very useful for the National Disaster Management Agency, as they can effectively work towards integrating cultural heritage into Indonesia’s Disaster Management Plan. She continued further by expressing how this information has been especially relevant within efforts towards enhancing community resilience and livelihoods.
UNESCO Jakarta also participated in a Post Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA) training, which was organized especially for UNESCO staff upon the conference’s completion. Giovanni Boccardi, Head of UNESCO Headquarters’ Emergency Preparedness and Response Unit, delivered the training sessions and hosted fruitful discussions on how UNESCO has applied PDNA strategies in order to determine the impacts that natural disasters have had on the cultural heritage of the affected countries.