Climate change disproportionately impacts vulnerable communities in Global South countries, including women and girls, farmers, those living in poverty, children, and indigenous communities.

Loss of life. Loss of homes. Loss of livelihoods. Loss of education. Loss of health care. The effects of conflict and climate change are vast and far-reaching. Not only do they have a humanitarian impact, wreaking havoc on the most vulnerable, but one of the less considered victims of conflict and the climate change are world cultural heritage sites. 

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 1 in 3 natural sites and 1 in 6 cultural heritage sites are currently threatened by climate change. Erosion due to sea level rise, for example, has threatened serious damage to the iconic Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and also destroyed sections of Kilwa Kisiwani, a historic Tanzanian city.

World heritage sites are places of exceptional cultural or natural significance and are recognized by UNESCO for their outstanding universal value. They play an important role in preserving communities' cultural identiy, attracting tourism, supporting thousands of jobs, and contributing to the national and local economies. 

These sites include ancient ruins, historical monuments, natural landscapes, and cultural practices. Well known world heritage sites include: the Great wall of China, Stonehenge in the UK, the Taj Mahal in India, Victoria Falls in southern Africa, and Easter Island off the coast of Chile to name a few. Can you imagine a world without these incredible cultural and historical sites?

In order to ensure the universal protection of world cultural heritage sites, the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was created in 1954 by UNESCO. Widely known as the 1954 Hague Convention, it is the first and most comprehensive multilateral treaty (an international agreement between more than two parties, often resulting from a conference held under an international organization) that is solely dedicated to the protection of cultural heritage in times of peace and during armed conflicts.

In recent years, post-conflict and post-disaster reconstruction has become an increasingly important issue after the destruction of cultural heritage sites in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nepal, Syria, and Yemen. In response to this UNESCO has launched key initiatives for the reconstruction and recovery of a number of world heritage sites that have been heavily damaged by conflict or disaster. — but the answer to protecting world heritage is of course to tackle the climate emergency and end conflict worldwide.

These are seven examples of heritage sites that have been impacted by conflict and climate change.

1.  Over 300 Ukrainian heritage sites and artifacts have been damaged and stolen since the war began.

Our Lady of Kasperova Church in Kherson after Russian shelling on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2023 (images before the war, after Kakhovka dam breach). On this day, shelling of the city damaged the church, an educational institution and 4 multi-storey buildings; one person was killed and three were injured.
Image: National Police of Ukraine | ©Wikimedia Commons

According to a report published by the journal Antiquity, the scale of destruction of Ukrainian heritage sites due to conflict has not been seen in the country since World War II. 

Since Putin invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, many cultural sites across Ukraine have sustained varying degrees of damage.  

As of Feb. 7, 2024, UNESCO verified damage to 342 sites, highlighting the ongoing impact of the conflict on the cultural heritage of Ukraine. Among the damaged sites are 127 religious sites, 150 buildings of historical and artistic significance, 31 museums, 19 monuments, 14 libraries, and one archive.

Moreover, It has been reported that more than 480,000 artworks have been illegally removed by Russian troops as of early 2024, the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine told the Economist. The Kherson Museum alone has lost 28,000 artworks during the occupation of Kherson city, which highlights the systematic targeting of cultural treasures

Numerous measures have been implemented in response to the ongoing conflict to safeguard Ukraine's cultural heritage. A dedicated unit of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces has been established to investigate the targeting of cultural heritage sites across Ukraine. The unit is led by lawyer Vitaliy Tytych, and its primary objective is to gather evidence to prosecute The Russian military. Additionally, Ukraine has received financial support and training from the US Department of State. In February 2023, the department announced that it would invest $7 million to help Ukraine protect its cultural heritage. This funding will also be used to train Ukrainian soldiers in safeguarding cultural heritage during armed conflicts.

2. The Great Mosque of Aleppo was destroyed during Syria’s Civil War.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo, 8th century CE. Current building dates back to the 11th through 14th centuries. It is architecturally similar to the Great Mosque of Damascus. The mosque was seriously damaged during Syrian Civil War but is due to be restored. Aleppo, Syria.
Image: © Vyacheslav Argenberg / ©Wikimedia Commons

The Great Mosque of Aleppo also known as the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, Syria, was constructed between the 13th and 18th centuries. It featured a minaret that was used for daily prayers and was one of the oldest and largest mosques in the city.

But in 2013, this cultural heritage site was destroyed, including the mosque’s tower which had stood since 1090 amid violence during the Syrian civil war. 

According to the Guardian, the mosque was being occupied by anti-government rebels at the time and used as a battleground. Both Bashar al-Assad's regime and anti-government activists blamed the other side for the attack.

3. Easter Island’s famous Moai statues are at risk of disappearing due to rising sea levels. 

15 Moai statues standing side by side in a row at a Unesco Heritage National Park at Easter Island, Chile, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2022.
Image: Emerson Moretto / Unsplash

Have you ever heard of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island?

The island is home to the Moai: monolithic rock figures that are both a marvel of human engineering and phenomenal works of art, ranging from two to 20 meters in height. Rapa Nui's 900 Moai are an incredible sight, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. From the 10th to the 16th centuries, the Polynesian society living on the island built shrines and erected these enormous stone figures, creating an unrivaled cultural landscape that continues to fascinate people throughout the world. 

However, due to climate change, many of these Moai statues could soon be under threat due to the rising sea levels around Rapa Nui increasing the likelihood of flooding during storms and adverse weather events. This, in turn, is causing the Moai figures to be pulled away from their bases, which could eventually lead to the statues' collapse.

Rapa Nui's Moai statues are not the only things under threat on this remote Pacific island. The local indigenous population's way of life is also in danger due to global warming. According to Bloomberg, reduced levels of rainfall on the island have made life challenging for its 8,000 inhabitants. In 2020, the island received only 992 milliliters of rainfall, compared to 1,311 in 1991.

Despite this, efforts have been taken to protect the Moai and the Indigenous population. A sea wall has been constructed to preserve the Moai at one location while the Chilean government has also collaborated with scientists to implement a broader climate action plan.

4. Mali’s Timbuktu cultural heritage sites were destroyed by conflict.

Women walk on the roof of the Great Mosque of Djenné after praying. The Great Mosque of Djenné was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988 along with the old town of Djenné, in the central region of Mali.
Image: Marco Dormino/UN Photo

In 2012, rebel Islamist groups took over the ancient city Timbuktu in Mali and destroyed mosques, mausoleums, and Sufi tombs that had been built as far back as the 15th century.

In response to this, Mali’s government sought support from the international community through UNESCO. Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia were placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger and UNESCO initiated a series of major actions to assist Mali

In 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found Ahmed Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi who was head of the jihadist group known as the Hisbah, guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to nine years in prison for his role in the deliberate destruction of religious and historical buildings

This was the first time the ICC examined the destruction of religious sites as a war crime.

5. China’s cultural heritage sites and ancient artifacts are under threat from extreme weather.

Zhenhai Bridge, a large stone arch bridge in Tunxi District of Huangshan city, Anhui, China Tuesday, April. 25, 2013 |
Image: Courtesy of ©Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, China has seen significant climate-related damage to immovable tangible cultural heritage. A recent example is the flooding in 2020 that damaged over 130 cultural sites, including the Zhenhai bridge in Huangshan, Anhui province, a protected cultural site which dates back 500 years to the Ming dynasty

Moreover, ancient cave paintings such as those found in the renowned Mogao grottoes, are being damaged due to rainwater leaks and rising levels of humidity. When water vapor levels exceed 60% of saturation, salt begins to crystallize and separate on the walls of the cave, which can cause the paint to dislodge. As a result, murals dating back to the 4th century are deteriorating rapidly, with flakes of paint falling off at an alarming rate.

On Feb. 1, 2024, China implemented its first-ever provincial-level regulation on natural disaster risk management for cultural relics in Shanxi province. The regulation aims to manage disaster risk for 53,875 registered cultural heritage sites. However, this has been criticized for not including climate change’s impact on these cultural heritage sites. 

Published in August 2023, "Vanishing Point: Cultural Heritage, Climate Change, and Conservation Challengeshighlighted the need for revisions to China's Cultural Relics Protection Law to consider the impact of climate change on cultural relic preservation. The proposed changes would expand the scope of the law to include more types of relics and enhance China's strategies for addressing climate change impacts on cultural heritage.

6. Bangladesh’s historical Bagerhat mosques are being impacted by rising sea levels and saltwater.

An ancient mosque known as Sixty-Dome Mosque and locally known as Shat Gambuj Masjid,situated at Bagerhat, Bangladesh.
Image: Ahmed Jubair on Unsplash

Bagerhat in southern Bangladesh is a city home to 360 mosques from the 15th century and is recognised as one of the most important religious sites in Bangladesh. It was added to UNESCO's list in 1985 for its global significance. 

However, climate change is bringing more extreme heat and rainfall, flooding, erosion, and saltwater to the low-lying southern city, thus posing a threat to Bangladesh's historical and cultural Bagerhat mosques.

In Mosque City of Bagerhat, such changes are undermining historic structures, causing the surface of aging bricks and masonry to disintegrate more rapidly, for instance, and allowing fungus and plants to gain a foothold, according to Reuters.

Bangladesh has taken strides on adaptation planning over the last decade, by implementing the National Adaptation Plan of action (NAPA), setting up climate change trust funds, and pioneering community-based adaptation approaches.

7. Nigeria’s Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove is at risk of flooding.

View of one of the palaces at the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove heritage site, at Osogbo, Osun state, Nigeria, Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. The palace had experienced roof damage and collapse.
Image: Aghogho Otega on Unsplash

The Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove is a forest sanctuary located along the Osun River, on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo, in southern Nigeria. This site is considered a national monument and is believed to be the dwelling place of the goddess of fertility Osun, one of the pantheons of Yoruba gods. The grove’s landscape, which includes the Osun river, is adorned with sanctuaries, 40 shrines including the Busanyin Shrine, as well as sculptures and artworks honoring Osun and other deities. 

Additionally, the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove is an important religious site for Yoruba religion practitioners, local traditionalists, and followers worldwide who visit.

The Osun River plays a vital role in the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove and many structures, worship points, and sculptures are located near the water.

However, as the intensity of rains increases within the tropical monsoon region, these structures are at risk of damage caused by flooding and heavy rains. In 2019, seasonal flooding caused severe damage to the Busanyin Shrine.

The mud-based concrete that supported the pillars of the shrine was damaged and the roof collapsed. This loss has been devastating to the local community and local traditionalist priests, which can no longer use the shrine safely.

Local community groups, religious leaders, government agencies, and conservation experts have come together to protect and preserve Osun-Osogbo Grove and the Busanyin Shrine.

Global Citizen Life

Defend the Planet

7 Heritage Sites We Are Losing to Conflict and Climate Change

By Fadeke Banjo