Myanmar welcomed the inclusion of the ancient capital of Bagan on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 2019, nearly 25 years after the complex was first nominated in 1995. But Bagan and other cultural and natural heritage sites in Southeast Asia awarded the status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization face a range of natural and manmade dangers that could threaten their viability. Scores of temples and stupas in Bagan, for instance, were damaged and destroyed by a 6.8-magnitude earthquake in August 2016. Devastating floods in Laos in 2018 significantly compromised cultural heritage in a handful of provinces. The region’s World Heritage Sites can also be undermined by proposed infrastructure projects and rapid development.
UNESCO says pollution from growing industrialization and urbanization have impacted Vietnam’s scenic Ha Long Bay, inscribed as a World Heritage Site by the agency in 1994. Neighboring Cambodia meanwhile has undertaken a management plan for its huge Angkor complex, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, to better handle tourism pressure. RFA’s Roseanne Gerin discussed these issues with Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre and the Heritage Division, and Jing Feng, chief of the Asia-Pacific Unit of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, at the agency’s headquarters in Paris. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: This year the ancient Myanmar city of Bagan was included on the World Heritage List. How is UNESCO ensuring that conservation and repair work undertaken following the 6.8-magnitude earthquake is being done according to international heritage preservation standards?
Mechtild Rössler: When Bagan was included on the World Heritage List, our office already had helped a lot on the ground. They had a team in terms of supporting the authorities in restoration efforts. Now since it is included on the World Heritage List, we do our regular monitoring. We have the biggest monitoring system on earth which covers the 1,121 World Heritage Sites, and we have two processes. One is reactive monitoring where we go on the ground with monitoring missions if there is a specific issue and if the World Heritage Committee has requested us to do so. We have another process which is the periodic reporting [in which] governments give us in Section One the implementation of the [World Heritage] Convention [adopted by UNESCO in 1972 to identify and protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage] and their policies. In Section Two, they have to report every six years on the state of conservation of a specific site. So, Bagan will be included in the next cycle for the Asia-Pacific region which is due by summer 2020. We will launch the process in 2020, and in 2022, we will get the full reporting in on all the sites in Asia.
Jing Feng: Following the August 2016 earthquake, UNESCO working together with other international partners provided support for the post-earthquake rehabilitation process as well as for the PDNA process — the Post Disaster National Assessment. Once the site was inscribed on the World Heritage List, not only in the way of recognition of outstanding universal value, we also ensure the proper protection and management of the site [through] the process for monitoring [its] state of conservation.
RFA: After devastating floods in Laos in 2018, UNESCO undertook a PDNA to determine the impact on the built and living cultural heritage of affected areas. What have UNESCO and Lao officials done since then to restore heritage in the affected areas?
Jing Feng: This is really one of the crucial areas at UNESCO. Apart from the World Heritage Centre, we have a special unit called the Emergency and Preparedness Response Unit. The PDNA mission was carried out with coordination by this unit together with experts since it was a flooding situation. But that unit addresses post-conflict situations and post-disaster situations like flooding or fires. The PDNA aims to provide a sort of framework for the country to address issues such as mitigation measures for the disaster. We provide a framework and some advice, but it’s up to the country to ensure proper follow-up. In Laos so far, we haven’t had any detailed information on the concrete implementation of the recommendations of this PDNA.
RFA: What does UNESCO recommend that the Lao government do in the future to protect the country’s heritage sites which may be prone to flooding during the annual rainy season?
Mechtild Rössler: We recommend that all governments and all national and regional authorities include risk and disaster management in their management plans. To this end, we have already made a resource manual available on our web page. We can also send teams to help them to prepare such management plans. But let me also put it in a much broader framework because we have had a policy in place since 2007 on the risks of climate change and potential impacts. We are updating the policy now because all these sites are very likely being impacted by climate change. And the risk of flooding will become greater whether it’s in this region or in the Mediterranean or in any other region of the world. This is a great concern for us, and this is why we would like risk assessment to be integrated and for governments take steps toward the implementation of the climate change policy.
RFA: How is the impact of climate change, such as declining water levels and salinity intrusion, affecting heritage sites in the Mekong region?
Mechtild Rössler: It is very interesting that you ask this question because we have issues on salinity in several reports outside the Mekong region, but in the reports from the specific sites in this region, salinity has not played a role yet. I don’t know if this will come or not.
RFA: Is UNESCO concerned about the planned Luang Prabang dam project about 20 kilometers (12 miles) upstream of the town of Luang Prabang which is a World Heritage Site?
Mechtild Rössler: We provided information on the dam to the World Heritage Committee as early as 2014, so this is in our documents from the 38th World Heritage Committee meeting, which took place in Doha, Qatar, in June-July 2014. But since then there has been no new information. Our procedure is very, very clear. Whenever we hear information from a third-party — an NGO, an individual, whomever — that there is a project, we inquire with the state party concerned. But at the moment this project is on hold, as far as I know.
Jing Feng: This point relates to one of the processes of the World Heritage Convention that we call “reactive monitoring.” The director mentioned the way we present information to the World Heritage Committee for review. That is part of this reactive monitoring where we receive information, and we ask the country to verify and provide comments. So far, in the committee decision, the committee even said that if the dam project went ahead, there should be an environmental impact assessment. But for that part we haven’t received any further information since 2014.
RFA: How concerned is UNESCO about increased pollution generated by heavy industry, tourism, and growing urbanization affecting the Ha Long Bay World Heritage Site in Vietnam?
Mechtild Rössler: It is definitely one of the most visited sites in the region. It is a fantastic area. It’s well known, so it really is a key tourism destination. But it’s also an area where you have increased urbanization around, including industries, which could lead to water pollution and air pollution. Now Ha Long Bay forms a part of our marine sites managers’ network, so we train site managers especially from coastal and marine zones to deal with pollution and waste. In Ha Long Bay, we work through our [local] office a lot to look at the impacts, including better waste management and improving the situation on the ground related to population growth and the management of water and air pollution. There is also another area we are concerned about which is aquaculture because that also has an impact on the water quality of the whole area. Now we are working very closely with the authorities of Vietnam, the World Conservation Union, and the IUCN [International Union of the Conservation of Nature] which has an office there.
Jing Feng: For Ha Long Bay, pollution, waste management, and tourism pressure — all these state of conservation issues have been reviewed by the World Heritage Committee since 2014. There are specific recommendations that the World Heritage Committee has asked Vietnamese authorities to follow up on. From UNESCO’s side, we also carried out some training workshops and capacity-building activities, including an ecotourism project being carried out by the UNESCO Hanoi office to support local authorities in addressing these issues. The state of conservation [of Ha Long Bay] for us is an ongoing process.
RFA: You said that you asked Vietnamese officials to follow up. What have they done so far in response to that request?
Jing Feng: The said they are developing the tourism visit management plan for the site and will address the issue of visitor management strategies. This is an ongoing process, but I think the site is still facing some threats. For that reason, we will also continue to monitor and review the state of conservation of this World Heritage property.
Mechtild Rössler: I think the point here is that you have a lot of boat tourism. Tourists also are staying overnight on boats. And maybe one has to limit the boat tourism in this regard, so they are looking into this question. The other point which is very important is raising awareness about the waste, which could impact the quality of the World Heritage Site and the water quality and the air quality. This is what they are dealing with — making awareness-raising campaigns that affect both the local communities and visitors alike so they are better aware of waste management.
RFA: How concerned is UNESCO about a proposed cable-car project at Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, noted for its caves and grottoes, which was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2003?
Jing Feng: For Phong Nha-Ke Bang, the state of conservation of this property has been reviewed by the World Heritage Committee on several occasions. The cable-car project for Son Doong and Hang En caves was also reviewed this summer during the World Heritage Committee’s 43rd session in Baku, Azerbaijan. The committee also welcomed the fact that the state party, vis-à-vis the Vietnamese government, expressed that they have no intention to build a cable car to the Son Doong cave. With the reactive monitoring process, there was a joint World Heritage Centre and ICUN monitoring mission to the site in July 2018. This [mission] put forth a set of recommendations, including [ones] related to the cable car and other conservation issues facing this property.
RFA: Cambodia has undertaken a comprehensive tourism strategy (2012-2020) to mitigate threats to the longevity of the UNESCO-listed Angkor complex, which is vital to the economy of Siem Reap province, one of the country’s poorest regions. What is your evaluation of the strategy, and has Cambodia made significant positive changes in the way Angkor is managed to ensure its viability?
Mechtild Rössler: In 1992, when the site was included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the city of Siem Reap had 2,000 inhabitants. Today it has 200,000 inhabitants, so you see that people really live on Angkor as a tourism magnet. We were very happy to see the tourism management plan in 2012, but actually what we would like to see are updates of the management plan and the effective implementation of the tourism strategy — the diversification of destinations within the whole area of Angkor. The strategy is being developed up to 2020. The point for UNESCO is not only to have the strategy, but [also] to have a full implementation and to get the local communities better involved.
Jing Feng: One point I want to address is the revenue. The revenue from the tourism sector should also go for conservation efforts as well as to local communities. That way, it’s balancing the safeguarding of the site and also the livelihoods of the communities around it.