Damming Our World Heritage

Lori Pottinger

Nu River, China
Nu River, China

The list of World Heritage Sites is the ultimate “bucket list,” comprised of more than 900 of the world’s most amazing natural and man-made wonders on earth. From the Great Wall of China to Stonehenge, the Great Barrier Reef to the Grand Canyon, these are places of “outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity,” according to UNESCO, the keeper of the list. They are, in a word, irreplaceable.

When the World Heritage Committee holds its annual meeting next week in Paris , its members will consider conferring “endangered” status to a number of these natural and cultural marvels. A dozen of the sites – one-third of those being considered for endangered status – are now threatened by large dams.

An armchair tour of a few of these sites hints at the wonders the world stands to lose if the dams are built:

  • Kaziranga National Park in Northeast India is home to two-thirds of the world's Great One-horned Rhinoceroses, the world’s highest density of endangered Bengal tigers, a large breeding population of elephants, and many other unique species. Dozens of planned dams could seriously impede flows on the Brahmaputra, which is the lifeline for Kaziranga. For example, the Lower Subansiri Dam, now under construction on a major tributary, will cause the river’s flows to fluctuate 400-fold every day. “The project will starve and flood the river on a daily basis,” said an Indian writer who has reported on this dam’s impacts. This will greatly affect agriculture and wildlife in the floodplains and wetlands of Assam, including the World Heritage Site.
  • The miraculous Lake Turkana – the world’s largest desert lake – makes life possible in parched northern Kenya. The lake is home to the world's largest population of Nile crocodiles, healthy populations of hippos, and hundreds of bird and fish species. More than a quarter-million indigenous peoples have become masters of wresting sustenance from this harsh landscape. The Gibe III Dam, now under construction in Ethiopia, would strangle the Omo River, which supplies 90% of the lake’s inflow, and threaten lake fisheries and the people who depend on them. The dam also threatens another World Heritage site, the Lower Omo Valley, home to remarkable cultural diversity and a wealth of archeological treasures dating back 2.4 million years.
  • La Amistad, the largest national park in Costa Rica (the park is also partly in Panama), protects widely diverse habitats, including tropical lowland rainforest, cloud forests and a rare tundra-like ecosystem. The park is surrounded by reserves for indigenous peoples. Proposals for up to 17 dams would greatly alter the region, bringing in development, changing local hydrology, and destroying habitat.
  • China’s Three Parallel Rivers site in Yunnan is known as the epicenter of Chinese biodiversity. This impressive watershed supports more than 6,000 plant species and nearly a quarter of the world’s animal species. This unique ecosystem and the communities that depend on it for their survival are threatened by plans by China to construct a 13-dam cascade on the Nu River. UNESCO says this site is “a truly unique landscape, which still retains a high degree of natural character despite thousands of years of human habitation. As the last remaining stronghold for an extensive suite of rare and endangered plants and animals, the site is of outstanding universal value.”

Kenyan activists call for the protection of Lake Turkana
Kenyan activists call for the protection of Lake Turkana

Local people are providing a bulwark against many of these ill-conceived projects. Indigenous Naso and Ngobe people have worked to stop dams that would affect La Amistad, using sit-ins, legal actions and letter-writing campaigns. Kenyan activists have kept international financial institutions from backing the Ethiopian dam. An Indian farming group recently succeeded in turning back a shipment of turbines for the Lower Subansiri project. 

Dams are not the only threats to World Heritage Sites, of course. In 2001, the Taliban intentionally dynamited giant Buddhas carved out of a cliff in the Bamiyan Valley. In 2007, UNESCO raised the alarm on how climate change could irreparably harm dozens of sites. Illegal logging, mining and other “environmental insults” threaten many others.

The effects of big dams on river-based World Heritage Sites may not be as dramatic as dynamite, but over the long term, they are equally deadly. The governments behind these destructive projects are endangering our shared global heritage. Governments benefit from the prestige of having World Heritage status in their states, and the rest of us benefit from the enrichment we receive in exploring and understanding these cultural and environmental wonders. Building projects that can harm the long-term health of these sites will bring these governments global shame.

The World Heritage Committee deserves our thanks for trying to protect these remarkable places. So do the grassroots groups and local people who have been fighting these dams. Losing a dozen sites to big dams should be a wake-up call to the myriad man-made threats that are whittling away our world heritage. Adding these sites to the endangered list will send a strong message to dam-building governments that the eyes of the world are upon them.