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Disaster Preparedness for Cultural Heritage

by Christianna Johnnides
Download working paper  PDF 240 KB 


A comprehensive guide on disaster preparedness for cultural heritage was produced by the International Center for the Study of Preservation and Restoration and the Committee of the Blue Shield about 10 years ago to provide guidelines for local and national authorities in countries and regions at risk of natural hazards. As seen in many countries where cultural assets are irreplaceably lost or severely damaged (e.g., the 2,500-year-old citadel of Bam in Iran was reduced to rubble by an earthquake in late 2003), practical precautionary measures can safeguard important cultural resources.

The basic principles of disaster preparedness for cultural heritage can be summarized as:

Integration of cultural heritage assets into existing disaster management plans.
Use of preventive approaches that improve or maintain the condition of heritage assets to ensure the survival of the heritage and its significant messages during and after natural disasters.

The Swiss are considered to have developed international good practice for integrative disaster management planning. In the Swiss system, a heritage department is incorporated into the Federal Office for Civil Protection (the Office), which deals with providing aid in the event of a disaster and protection from armed conflict. In addition to the legislative and administrative obligations, the Office also mandates that localities make specific financial contributions
to safeguard heritage.

For preventive conservation, risk management can provide a framework for decision making. There are four recognized steps to using a risk management approach for preservation issues: (i) identify all risks to heritage; (ii) assess the magnitude of each risk; (iii) identify possible mitigation strategies; and, (iv) evaluate the costs and benefits associated with each strategy.

International experience and lessons learned

Integrative Planning for Istanbul, Turkey 

Preventive Conservation in the Cultural Heritage Project, Georgia

 Key Lessons Learned from International Experience 

Recommendations for risk planning, response, and recovery

Internationally accepted frameworks and procedures for environmental assessment can be applied to the protection of cultual heritage, and are fungible with reconstruction planning.

Preparing a national inventory of cultural heritage should be the first step in analyzing risks and assessments. Since
these inventories serve as the key instrument necessary for effective emergency planning, they should be kept up to date, easily accessible, and spatially related by using geographic information systems (GIS). During emergency operations for threats to cultural assets from the floods, fires, or landslides often triggered by earthquakes, GIS enables policy makers and planners to create an accurate picture. National inventories often include documentation on previous disaster-related incidents and maintain records on the structural conditions of the individual assets and their historic significance.

Mitigation procedures should be put into place (i.e., to ensure that museum display cases have been adapted for seismic conditions or important collections are not stored in basements in flood-prone areas). In addition, the buildings, whether they house important collections or are of heritage value themselves, must be properly maintained to building code standards.

Heritage staff and professionals should be included in the national, provincial, or local disaster planning exercises and should be informed of imminent natural disasters.  Planning at the level of heritage sites requires these professionals to be trained in emergency management and able to communicate and train their own staff and communities.

The international community benefits from sharing the knowledge on and promoting the principles of disaster preparedness for cultural heritage as countries become more aware of the potential danger of permanent loss of these treasures. In effect, cultural heritage should be considered in all aspects of disaster management planning, including preparedness and recovery. Risk preparedness should not be conceived only in emergency situations but interwoven into the routine management of cultural heritage resources.

Heritage also can play a catalytic role when it comes to economic recovery after a major disaster. While tourism is often one of the first industries to feel the direct effects of a natural disaster, it is also the most resilient after a disaster. Reviving tourism, including cultural tourism, brings much-needed revenues and opportunities for the recovery of a country. Reconstruction should take into consideration that some local communities are dependent on tourism revenues, and that as tourism facilities are rebuilt, in the interim, these communities may require additional support to survive.

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