WWF has released a report stating that an alarming half of the natural world heritage sites are threatened by development. From the incredible Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System to the giant panda sanctuaries in Sichuan, China, 114 of the 229 natural and mixed World Heritage sites that protect fragile environments are at risk. This list even includes wonders like the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon.
“World Heritage sites cover about 0.5 per cent of the Earth’s surface. Yet even this small fraction of our planet isn’t receiving the protection it deserves,” said David Nussbaum, CEO of WWF-UK. “These areas contribute to our economies, provide livelihoods for millions and supporting some of the most valuable ecosystems, so we need to work together now to ensure they are properly protected.”
Causes that put sites at risk:
An eye on short-term gains is bound to have a tremendous impact in the long term. According to the study, 114 of the 229 natural and mixed World Heritage sites have oil, gas or mining concessions or they are threatened from a harmful industrial activity.
Oil and gas exploration and extraction, fossil fuel exploration, mining, illegal logging, large-scale infrastructure construction, overfishing and unsustainable water use are the big culprits.
Impact on People, Wildlife and Environment
The sites play home to some of the world’s rarest species, such as orangutans, pandas and great white sharks. Threat to the natural sites puts the species it lovingly harbours at critical risk. Also, communities living in and around the sites are at risk of environmental degradation. If the sites aren’t protected with immediate action, it compromises their economic and non-economic benefits to millions, according to the report.
Examples of how Development Impacts Natural Sites:
Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries – Wolong, Mt Siguniang and Jiajin Mountains
Covering 924,500 ha including seven nature reserves in the Qionglai and Jiajin Mountains, the Sanctuaries shelter more than 30 per cent of the world’s pandas. The largest remaining contiguous habitat of the giant panda is also its most important site for captive breeding. Other endangered animals like the red panda, snow leopard and clouded leopard reside here.
Threats: Road and dam developments inside the site, mining, translocation of local residents, emphasis on tourism development rather than conservation, new developments after earthquake events and accelerated reforestation with inappropriate tree species.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is among the earth’s greatest on-going geological spectacles. Formed during 6 million years of geologic activity and erosion by the Colorado River, the horizontal strata exposed in the canyon retrace geological history over 2 billion years and span all four eras of the earth’s evolutionary history, from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic.
Threats: Grand Canyon National Park is currently well managed, but faces external development threats. Uranium mining on the park boundary in its watershed, commercial development in the Little Colorado area, development, infrastructure and funding issues, operation of Glen Canyon dam, and the need to complete plans for caves, backcountry, etc. Mining, grazing, timber harvesting and water withdrawal may degrade native plant communities, destroy wildlife habitat, interrupt migration corridors, and disturb wildlife breeding.
Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System
The second largest reef system in the world and the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, the Belize Barrier reef features offshore atolls, sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries. The system’s seven sites illustrate the evolutionary history of reef development.
Endangered species protected within the site include the West Indian manatee, the American crocodile and three species of sea turtle. It’s a habitat for three species of groupers, the red-footed booby, the jaguars of Bacalar Chico, the great hammerheads of the Blue Hole, and the ospreys of Glovers Reef – making it an area with one of the highest levels of marine biodiversity in the Atlantic.
Threats: Coastal development, tourism growth, overfishing, invasive species and the multiple impacts of climate change (coral reef bleaching events, increased frequency and severity of storms; and sea level rise) are serious factors that negatively affect the integrity of the site. The most serious potential threat is oil exploration and drilling. Conservation for the site is of significant concern if the government doesn’t classify it as a no-go zone.
The Great Barrier Reef:
The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. Within the GBR, there are 2,500 individual reefs and over 900 islands. This diversity makes GBR a site of enormous scientific and intrinsic importance.
Threats: Climate change, catchment run-off, coastal development, ports, shipping and fishing. Poor water quality influences in-shore regions of the reef. Water quality in the mid to outer shelf is good to very good as it is less influenced by river discharge.
Lake Malawi National Park
Lake Malawi is critical for biodiversity conservation for its fish diversity. One of the deepest lakes in the world, the site is home to many hundreds of cichlid fish, known locally as “mbuna”. Lake Malawi’s isolation from other water bodies has made its mbuna fish develop impressive adaptive radiation and speciation – an great example of the ecological processes.
Threats: Oil exploration began recently in the northern part of the lake and a second oil concession was awarded in late 2013 for the southern part of the lake, including the entire property – incompatible with its World Heritage status.
- Natural and mixed World Heritage sites protect over 280 million hectares of land and sea and represent more than 8% of the total area of all recorded protected areas.
- Of all natural World Heritage sites, 108 are forest sites, 46 are marine sites and 15 are transboundary sites.
- More than 11 million people living in and near World Heritage sites depend on them for food, water, medicine and jobs—that’s more than the entire population of Portugal!
Call to Action for Governments
Healthy natural World Heritage sites contribute to poverty reduction, help alleviate food insecurity, combat climate change, and restore and promote the sustainable use of ecosystems. Governments should aim to invest in the future of these sites to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals commitments. WWF calls on national governments to:
- Ensure that no harmful industrial activities are permitted in World Heritage sites or in areas that could negatively affect them
- To hold multinational enterprises to the highest standards of corporate accountability and stewardship.
How You Can Help
Raise an SOS: Alert the World Heritage Committee about threats to sites. Contact them at: World Heritage Centre, UNESCO, 7, place de Fontenoy, 75352 Paris 07 SP, France. Or email them at [email protected].
Volunteer: Young people can make all the difference. Learn how to go from talking to action.