Story | 06 Dec, 2021

Conflict and climate change pressures on natural World Heritage in the Arab region

A new report, Tabe’a III, examines for the first time the impacts from conflict in natural World Heritage sites in the Arab States, as well as those from extreme weather conditions. It also looks at the connections between nature and culture in the management of these sites.

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Photo: Selma Kassem

The third report of its kind since 2015, Tabe’a III is the only publication documenting progress, challenges and opportunities for protecting outstanding natural areas in the Arab States through the World Heritage Convention. It is part of a cooperative programme by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Arab Regional Centre for World Heritage (ARC-WH), and focuses on the period from 2015 to 2019.

The Arab region currently boasts eight World Heritage sites listed for their natural values. These include diverse natural landscapes, from deserts where rare species withstand extreme conditions, to wetlands providing refuge to migratory birds and seascapes hosting an abundant diversity of marine life.

The Arab States are one of the world’s regions most affected by conflict, which in turn affects World Heritage. Of 52 sites currently listed as “World Heritage in Danger” globally, 40% (21 sites) are in Arab States. However more is known about impacts from conflict in cultural World Heritage sites than in natural ones, and initiatives addressing environmental issues related to conflict are not specific to natural World Heritage.

The report identifies the main impacts of conflict on nature as habitat destruction, pollution (water, air and soil), flight of refugees to natural areas, increasing risk of invasive species, the collapse of infrastructure and management capacity, the increased production and utilisation of resources, uncontrolled development and increased wildlife hunting and poaching.

In areas where strong traditional practices are upheld and local communities’ ownership of resources is high, less damage is likely to incur during periods of conflict, the report shows. However the way natural heritage is managed and governed post-conflict can also either fundamentally support or undermine peace-building initiatives.

The report also discusses the effect of climate change factors on natural World Heritage sites in the Arab region, which is particularly prone to extreme weather conditions, water scarcity and coastal floods. Climate change is the top threat to natural World Heritage sites globally, according to the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 issued in December 2020, and the top threat in the Arab region together with solid waste.

The Tabe’a III report highlights that many World Heritage sites in the Arab region have no established policy, plan or process for managing or reducing risks associated with disasters. At the same time, these sites can be part of the solution both ahead of and following the impacts of extreme weather conditions, as healthy ecosystems are more resilient to unusual natural conditions, absorb and store carbon, and can recover faster and more easily.

Societies in this region have been under pressure to adapt to water scarcity and heat for thousands of years and have developed various techniques to deal with these environmental constraints. As such, the Arab region is a valuable repository of traditional and institutional knowledge, which, if preserved and made accessible, could prove an important contribution to global efforts in addressing climate change.

The report also discusses nature–culture linkages, highlighting that lessons from local populations in the Arab region can be instrumental in achieving successful heritage conservation and sustainability outcomes. For example, in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula, efforts have promoted the revival of the age-old tradition of Al Hima, whereby an area is set aside seasonally to allow regeneration of natural resources.

Such relationship between people and the natural environment have worked to shape both the physical environment and belief systems. Today acknowledging this has led to a growing understanding that natural or cultural attributes of heritage sites are not separate realities, but rather are intertwined and connected.

Tabe’a III also takes stock of Conservation Outlook Assessments in the region’s natural and “mixed” (natural and cultural) World Heritage sites in the period between 2014 and 2017, in which little progress was made. Furthermore, the 2017 conservation outlook for natural World Heritage in the Arab States was positive for two-thirds of the sites, but was assessed in 2020 as of significant concern for half of the sites.

To help these exceptional sites overcome challenges while supporting their success, IUCN and ARC-WH provide support to regional stakeholders of the World Heritage Convention, as partner institutions combining expertise at the global and regional levels.

Report citation
Abulhawa, T., Cummings, T. and Kassem, S. (2021). Tabe’a III: Nature-culture linkages, conflict and climate
change impacts on natural heritage in the Arab region
. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN and Manama, Bahrain: ARCWH.