How Cop28 in Dubai could help reduce the effect of climate change on cultural heritage

The recent Aliph conference in Abu Dhabi indicated how grave a risk climate emergency poses to the people and cultures of the world

Iraqi buffalo herders in the marshes of Chibayish collect reeds. Over the past few decades their lives and environments are increasingly at risk. AP
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When Aliph, the Swiss agency that protects endangered cultural heritage, was launched at Emirates Palace in 2017, the context was the destruction caused by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The threat felt palpable, a clear and immediate danger, and Aliph was set up as a private-public partnership to effectively respond to events on the ground.

Six years on, Aliph already has a remarkable track record in quickly acting to shore up and maintain world heritage under threat. Its motto of “action, action, action” has repeatedly turned around grants and pledges of support in a matter of days — whether for museums in Ukraine or for a 1,700-year-old arch on the verge of collapse in southern Iraq.

But at last week’s second major Abu Dhabi event, a two-day session of talks, panel discussions and break-out rooms, a new threat dominated the agenda: the dangers to world heritage monuments, intangible heritage and humanity through climate change. It was a key thread throughout the discussions, underlined throughout the concluding remarks by the UAE’s newly appointed Minister for Culture and Youth, Salem Al Qassimi.

The dangers that climate change pose to cultural heritage are numerous and interrelated, because it often exacerbates other long-standing threats. For example, freak weather events such as torrential rains in the Sahel in Africa have badly weakened the area’s traditional mud-brick architecture.

A man and his donkey near Maradi, Niger. Rising temperatures are rendering the inhospitable African Sahel increasingly susceptible to food shortages. AFP

At the same time, the economic crises driven by climate change in the Sahel and other rural regions are also eroding the local knowledge of how to maintain these sites. The older generation who posses this knowledge are dying, and economic pressures are dispersing younger populations into the diaspora.

In the marshlands of Iraq, which have been drying up since the 1990s, only about 10 per cent of the former population remain.

As Raad Habeeb Taher Alasadi of the Chabayish NGO showed, the Iraqi marsh people formerly lived in houses made of sustainable material; now the trees that provided the walls for their houses have died and they live in tents made of plastic tarpaulins, which further contaminate the marshes once they are thrown away. Their buffalo are dying and with them their source of food and sustenance. Today, this entire tribe of people, with their songs, handicrafts, dialect, and a way of life in coexistence with the marshes, are at risk of being forgotten.

As ever with the climate catastrophe, the scale of the changes needed is overwhelming. Yet there is one clear step that can be taken: the inscription of cultural heritage as a specific sector that is vulnerable to climate change at Cop28, which Dubai will host in December this year.

The frameworks by the various UN climate change conferences over the years have failed to recognise how cultural heritage, tangible and intangible, is being severely affected by the changes in climate. At last year’s Cop27, in Sharm El Sheikh, the term “cultural heritage” entered the proceedings for the first time as one of the “loss and damages” that countries, primarily of the Global South, endure due to climate change. But cultural heritage still does not yet stand as its own protected category.

Greater recognition of cultural heritage would allow those from the sector to have a seat at the table in working out climate change policies and raise their ability to request funds, while better enabling indigenous and traditional knowledge systems to feed into climate change research and policy.

There are solutions from the cultural field that could be of benefit to everyone: from traditional techniques of mud brick, a carbon-neutral form of architecture, to a knowledge of coexistence with marshland environments.

As the testimonies at the Aliph conference showed, cultural heritage is not an add-on value to the lives of people worldwide: it is their very lives and livelihood itself.

Published: March 17, 2023, 6:02 PM