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Culture

Germany poised to gain new UNESCO World Heritage site

An 850-year-old water management system in Germany's Upper Harz region could become a UNESCO World Heritage site, replacing Dresden's Elbe Valley, which was removed from the list. But would the title benefit the region?

Upper Harz Water Management System

The water management system was mainly used during the 16th to 19th centuries

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is currently holding its annual 10-day conference in Brasilia, Brazil, to consider requests for the inscription of 32 new sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including one site in Germany: the Upper Harz Water Management System in Lower Saxony.

The water management system consists of a series of dams, underground water wheels and chambers, and a water drainage canal, all with origin dates ranging from the year 1150 to 1805.

"There are no other sites globally that present what the Upper Harz system is, a preindustrial system of energy," Dieter Offenhaeusser, deputy secretary general of the German UNESCO Commission, told Deutsche Welle.

If accepted, the water management system would be an extension of two existing World Heritage sites - the Rammelsberg mines and the historic town of Goslar. The water management system had served the mines, which provided ore deposits that contributed to the commercial success of the so-called Hanseatic League, an economic trade alliance during the Middle Ages.

Upper Harz Water Management System

Miners built the system so they would have access to water in the dry seasons

World Heritage status a golden ticket?

The UNESCO status can bring prestige and notoriety to a region or city, as well as financial benefits - either in the way of tourism or by making it easier to receive financial assistance from political institutions.

Still, it's unclear just which advantages the World Heritage title would bring the Upper Harz region, particularly because it would be an extension of an existing site.

"It could affect tourism, but I don't know how it would affect it because Harz is already a tourist region, so if the World Heritage property is enlarged, we can't count whether there are more tourists," Offenhaeusser said.

Maintaining and preserving a site "is a big responsibility," added. "The World Heritage site takes a lot of work on that side."

Hans-Georg Dettmer, research associate and spokesperson for the World Cultural Heritage museum and visitor center in Rammelsberg, echoed these concerns: "To be listed as a part of the cultural heritage, it is absolutely necessary that the owners of the mining monuments have a concept of how to save and preserve these monuments."

The eastern German city of Dresden deliberately changed its concept when it decided to build a four-lane bridge across the River Elbe to ease traffic congestion going into the city. UNESCO removed the Elbe Valley's World Heritage title last year, saying the bridge marred the landscape.

"To be precise, I don't know [if the change of status has affected tourism]. I know it was a loss of reputation, not only for the region, but also for Germany," Offenhaeusser said. The Dresden Tourist Office was unavailable for comment.

Upper Harz Water Management System

The water management system borders on two existing UNESCO sites

Personal commitment out of the ashes

Certainly, economic benefits aren't necessarily UNESCO's main aim in naming World Heritage sites. Guenter Blobel, founder of the non-profit organization Friends of Dresden which worked to retain the city's world heritage status, has a personal connection to the city. As a child during World War II, he crossed through Dresden with his family as they fled their hometown in Silesia.

"I traveled there a few days before it was bombed, so I have seen the beauty of the city," he said. "A couple days later it was converted into ashes. I then saw it again at the end of May and saw it completely destroyed, and I said if I ever have a chance to do something toward its reconstruction, I would do it."

Blobel, who donated the prize money he earned in 1999 from winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to the reconstruction of Dresden, lost the campaign to maintain Dresden's protected status because the city set other priorities.

Whether the Upper Harz Water Management System will become Germany's 34th UNESCO site will be decided this week.

The UNESCO representatives, who convene in Brasilia until August 3, are also considering nominations from the Marshall Islands, Kiriabati and Tajikistan, three countries that currently have no World Heritage sites. Other sites under consideration are the Austrian city of Graz, the Jantar Mantar and Matheran railway in India, the prehistoric caves of Yagul aand Mitla in Mexico's Central Valley of Oaxaca, and the Koso Cultural Landscape in Ethiopia.

To date, the World Heritage list includes 890 properties; 33 are located in Germany.

Dresden's Elbe Valley

The existing bridges crossing the Elbe River were deemed too small to manage traffic needs

Author: Rebecca Farivar

Editor: Kate Bowen

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