Melting Everest Could Make World Heritage in Danger List

DURBAN, South Africa, July 12, 2005 (ENS) - The world's most famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, has joined environmental campaigners and lawyers in urging the UNESCO World Heritage Committee to place Mount Everest on the UN List of World Heritage in Danger because climate change is melting ice and snow on the world's tallest mountain. The 21 nation committee, now meeting in Durban, South Africa, will discuss the proposal today.

The World Heritage Convention legally requires all countries to pass Nepal's Everest, Sagarmatha, National Park intact to future generations. Campaigners argue that this will not happen unless urgent action is taken to stop the melting of the Himalayan ice and to prevent many glacial lakes from bursting, threatening the lives of thousands of people and destroying a unique and irreplaceable environment.

"The warming of the environment of the Himalayas has increased noticeably over the last 50 years," said Sir Edmund, who was the first to summit Everest, with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, on the morning of May 29, 1953. "This has caused several and severe floods from glacial lakes and much disruption to the environment and local people."

The campaign is organized by Pro Public, also known as Friends of the Earth Nepal, and the Climate Justice Programme, and is supported by Friends of the Earth International and notable individuals including Sir David Attenborough, Sir Chris Bonington, and Reinhold Messner.


Mount Everest, known as Sagarmatha, or in Tibetan, Chomolongma, is the tallest peak on Earth, rising 29,035 feet, or 8850 meters, above sea level. (Photo by Steve Jones courtesy FreeFoto)
The melting of Himalayan glaciers as a result of climate change has swollen Himalayan lakes, increasing the risk of catastrophic flooding, Friends of the Earth points out. There is broad agreement that many lakes are at risk, but a lack of adequate monitoring means that there is no realistic assessment of how close any are to bursting. Putting Everest National Park on the Danger List would mean the Committee would have to assess Nepal's glacial lakes and stabilize those most at risk.

"I agree the practical idea of remedial action of draining the lakes before they get to a dangerous condition is the only way to stop disasters," Sir Edmund said. "Therefore I support the petition to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee lodged by Pro Public and others, requesting the inclusion of Sagarmatha National Park in the list of World Heritage in Danger as a result of climate change and for protective measures and action."

Danger listing is a legal mechanism under the World Heritage Convention affording a higher level of protection for World Heritage sites.

Two other petitions are before the World Heritage Committee this week to place sites on the Danger list on the grounds that they are suffering as a result of climate change.

The Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy is calling for coral reefs in Belize to be added to the danger list due to climate change. And the environmental group Foro Ecológico del Peru is petitioning that glaciers in Peru's Huascaran National Park also be added because they are melting quickly as a result of climate warming.

The climate change problems faced by Nepal, Belize and Peru are not of their own making, but are the result of greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries.

Friends of the Earth is calling on the World Heritage Committee to "make it clear that international law requires governments around the world to reduce their countries' emissions to ensure that the world's most spectacular places remain for future generations."

Prakash Sharma, director of Pro Public said, "Mount Everest is a powerful symbol of the natural world, not just in Nepal. If this mountain is threatened by climate change, then we know the situation is deadly serious. If we fail to act, we are failing future generations and denying them the chance to enjoy the beauty of Mother Earth."


Climbers' camp with Mount Everest in the background. (Photo by Steve Jones courtesy FreeFoto)
Peter Roderick, director of the Climate Justice Programme said, "The eyes of the world will be on the Committee. We expect it to treat the petitions seriously, to danger-list these sites so that remedial measures can start immediately and to respect the legal duty to transmit World Heritage Sites to future generations."

Friends of the Earth's International climate campaigner, Catherine Pearce, said, "Climate change is the biggest threat the planet faces. UNESCO must put Everest on the danger list, and nations must wake up to the threat of global warming and do far more to cut emissions."

Forty-two new sites are proposed for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List during the 29th session of the World Heritage Committee that opened Sunday and continues through July 17 at the International Convention Centre in Durban. The Committee will review 28 cultural sites, 10 natural sites and four mixed sites presented by 44 countries. Extensions will be proposed for nine already inscribed sites.

The Committee will also re-examine the 35 sites already on the List of World Heritage in Danger to determine whether the face serious threat either from chemical or mining pollution; pillaging; war; poorly managed tourism; or poaching. One of the candidate sites for the World Heritage List could also be inscribed on the list of those in danger.

On Monday, the World Heritage Committee unanimously approved an African World Heritage Fund and an African Position Paper in Durban.

The proposal for a fund resulted from a series of discussions between South Africa, Benin, Nigeria, Egypt and Zimbabwe, as well as with the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, or NEPAD, and with international conservationists, and civil society.

African World Heritage Sites are in need of funding for maintenance, and the countries where they are located need funds for capacity building, raising public awareness, and to monitor the implementation of the World Heritage Convention.

Concerning the List of World Heritage in Danger, the number of African sites rose from three in 1994 to 17, including 12 natural sites, in 2004. These represent 49 percent of the sites in danger.

Four countries - China, the Netherlands, India and Israel - have already pledged financial support to the fund, while a number of countries have indicated a willingness to share expertize and other resources. It is expected that more countries will follow suit.

The funds pledged are to finance a feasibility study as part of the first phase to establish the African World Heritage Fund.

Announcing the launch of the Fund, South African Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr. Z. Pallo Jordan, said conservation and the preservation of Heritage can be used to address the development agenda.


South African Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr. Z. Pallo Jordan (Photo courtesy Government of South Africa)
"Conservation and heritage can be moved from the periphery to the core of the development agenda," he said. "There has been a tendency to see conservation and heritage in relation to monument preservation. Although monuments are contained in the list, heritage must include intangible heritage in the form of customs, practizes, traditions and forms of indigenous knowledge not classically considered heritage."

On Saturday, a special event, called Partners for Africa, will focus on Africa’s heritage and the action taken by UNESCO partners to safeguard it.

Four subjects will be discussed during the course of the day - the credibility of the World Heritage List, conservation of the sites, capacity building and raising awareness among the public and youth.

Despite some progress, Africa is under-represented on the World Heritage List, UNESCO says. In the past decade, the number of World Heritage sites in Africa rose from 68 to 100 with two-thirds of these in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, the continent has 64 cultural sites, 33 natural and three mixed sites on the List.

In South Africa to address the delegates to the World Heritage Committee meeting, UNESCO Director-General Koďchiro Matsuura took the opportunity this morning to designate Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador at a ceremony at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.

Mandela was awarded the title "in recognition of his outstanding leadership in the fight against apartheid and racial discrimination, in his country and worldwide; for his dedication to reconciliation between different communities; his unfailing commitment to democracy, equality and learning; his support for all the oppressed of the Earth; and his exemplary contribution to international peace and understanding."