Promoting disaster resilient cultural heritage, October 2017

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Cultural heritage holds great importance for communities around the world. Heritage—both tangible and intangible—connects us to the past and provides invaluable insights into our identities and evolution. It can play an important role in economic growth, poverty reduction, and sustainable development.

In post-disaster situations, cultural heritage can also play a role in strengthening the resilience of affected communities. In spite of these benefits, there is a lack of attention for the protection of heritage from a variety of risks, including disaster risks. While the disaster risk management (DRM) agenda has advanced substantially over the past decades, currently neither national nor local DRM strategies systematically integrate protection of heritage.1 In fact, experience shows that cultural heritage is often damaged or destroyed in the aftermath of a disaster due to insensitive conservation, recovery, and reconstruction.

Cultural heritage is vulnerable to the adverse impacts of natural disasters, and climate change is adding to the urgency of addressing this challenge. Lack of maintenance and the loss of traditional knowledge have increased the vulnerability of cultural heritage assets in many regions of the world. Urbanization and agglomeration of economic activity have also been exerting pressures, for example through changes in land use or zoning that may expose cultural heritage to additional risks. When regular infrastructure is damaged by disaster, repair or reconstruction is usually possible; but impacts on cultural heritage can be irreversible and can also lead to economic losses, including loss of livelihoods.

Countries around the world are employing a variety of measures to safeguard cultural heritage against disaster risks, drawing on relevant conventions, policy frameworks, and guidance.2 International disaster risk reduction frameworks such as the Hyogo Framework for Action and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 recognize the links between different aspects of culture, risk reduction, and resilience, and so provide a foundation and enabling policy environment for mainstreaming of DRM to preserve cultural assets. Many countries, including Japan, Italy, Turkey, and others, are already driving innovation and good practice in the sector. Lessons from their experience suggest there are many opportunities to safeguard heritage, avoid unnecessary loss of lives, and minimize damages and losses in economic activities.

To protect lives, livelihoods, and cultural heritage, it is important to strengthen the resilience of assets at risk and make disaster resilience an intrinsic part of cultural heritage management. Key recommendations emerging from this note are in line with the four priority areas of action identified under the Sendai Framework: improving understanding of risk, strengthening risk governance, investing in risk reduction and disaster preparedness, and supporting efforts to build back better.

• Legal, policy, and institutional frameworks. Strengthening the resilience of cultural heritage should be considered an integral component of a country’s overall DRM strategy. It is crucial to establish an enabling legal, policy, institutional, and operational framework for resilient cultural heritage, and to outline responsibilities and coordination protocols for various stakeholders and across the spectrum of DRM practices, from risk assessment to preparedness, response, and recovery. Greater coordination between the different stakeholders, including academia, the private sector, and the local communities, is needed beyond the times of a disaster.

• Understanding risk. Baseline data collection and scientific identification of risks through multi-hazard risk assessments and impact scenarios are cornerstones for improved management of disaster risk facing cultural heritage assets.

• Risk reduction and capacity building. A variety of measures can be taken to reduce disaster risks to cultural assets, including both physical mitigation and non-engineered solutions such as improved building codes, coordination, or site management. Data, technology, and innovative approaches can help protect monuments against natural disasters at the level defined by criteria and expected risks, for example by helping to prioritize and protect the most important heritage assets in the context of limited resources, and by identifying the right combination of measures.

• Preparedness and early recovery. Post-disaster recovery is a sensitive time when additional factors (debris removal, theft, misclassification, further disaster events) can amplify the impact of the initial disaster. Stakeholders need to be better prepared if they are to effectively respond to disaster impacts on heritage assets and support sensitive recovery, especially when local communities and livelihoods are closely connected to heritage sites.