An oil well temporarily burns off natural gas in Spanish Lookout, Belize. The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System is said to be at risk from unsustainable coastal construction, large-scale mangrove clearance, harmful agricultural run-off and the potential of dangerous oil exploration. REUTERS

Almost half the natural world heritage sites around the world are being threatened by harmful industrial activities, says a WWF report. Dams, roads and railways and big infrastructure projects pose a big challenge to preserving the value of these sites. With thousands of new projects coming up in the developing world, the problems are sure to worsen.

The world heritage sites numbering 229 and extending across 279 million hectares comprise a mere 1 percent of the global protected areas or 0.5 pc of the Earth's area. These are places recognized for their 'outstanding universal value' and significance that transcends national boundaries because of their importance to present and future generations. Two-thirds of the sites are important sources of freshwater.

For instance, the rainforest heritage site of Sumatra is at high threat from logging and wood harvesting as also from roads and railways. Almost 27 mining concessions and three oil and gas permits overlap with the site and can cause major damage.

Roads and railways passing through the heritage sites fragment ecosystems, disrupt migration routes and result in animal deaths besides providing access to loggers and poachers, notes the report.

Thailand's Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex is an example of a site that has suffered major loss to biodiversity and stability over the last 40 years, all thanks to infrastructure. Enclosing four national parks and a wildlife sanctuary, it is home to more than 2,500 plant species and 800 animal species, including endangered tigers, elephants and leopards.

Other research has shown that in the Brazilian Amazon 95% of all deforestation occurs within 5.5 km of a legal or illegal road.

Infrastructure tsunami
The situation is poised to get worse with what experts call an 'infrastructure tsunami'. The next few decades will see some 25 million km of new paved roads, thousands of new hydroelectric dams, and thousands of new mining, oil and gas projects, writes Bill Laurance, the director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University. Around 90 percent of the new projects are in developing nations, often in biologically rich and crucial ecosystems of the tropics or subtropics, says the article in The Conversation.

In Brazil, 12 new dams planned for the Tapajós River are expected to increase Amazon deforestation by a million hectares while across the Amazon, more than 330 dams are in various stages of construction. In the Congo Basin, new roads have opened access to poachers leading to the slaughter of two-thirds of its elephants in a decade.

With huge investors like the World Bank, IMF and others facing intense competition from newcomers like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) who are fast-tracking procedures on large infrastructure, there is concern that institutionalized safeguard policies could be weakened. And that is exactly what is feared with the World Bank's recent review of its environmental standards where it proposes to replace earlier ones with aspirational standards or self-monitoring by the borrower.

As investing bodies and governments start relying more on companies for monitoring their own projects, under the notion that institutional safeguards hamper projects and hence growth, sustainability is fast losing hold.

The solution
Among the many measures listed in the report, WWF asks the private sector to make no go commitments to refrain from activities that threaten to degrade World Heritage sites. Financing should also be withheld from such projects. It advocates sustainable management to prevent over extraction and exploitation of natural resources.

Good heritage sites have a valuation that is socially conscious, based on long-term, governance that benefits all, transparent and realistic policy making and regulations enforced, the report notes.

The WWF study, Protecting People through Nature: Natural World Heritage Sites as Drivers of Sustainable Development, shows that over 20 per cent of natural World Heritage sites face threats from multiple harmful industrial activities.

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System for example is shown to be at risk from unsustainable coastal construction, large-scale mangrove clearance, harmful agricultural run-off and the potential of dangerous oil exploration. 

"Conserving the environment does not hurt economic opportunities, it allows us to build sustainably on these irreplaceable assets," said Roberto Troya, WWF's Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. "Threats to World Heritage sites in places as diverse as Belize, Spain and Tanzania demonstrate how widespread the risks run and should unite us in our effort to protect these essential areas."