From the Angkor Wat to the Olympia ruins, the list of World Heritage sites is growing longer and its conservation costs skyrocketing. Cash-strapped UNESCO needs to attract more private funds to its historic sites.
Unmistakably Cologne -- the city's cathedral is a World Heritage site
The idea underlying UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites is a noble one -- that a number of the world's ancient monuments are of such exceptional value and significance that their preservation should be a global concern and not just left to the countries where the sites are located.
An armed Afghan man stands guard near the destroyed Buddha statue in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, which is a World Heritage site.
Since the "Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage" was set up in 1972, 754 treasures from 129 countries including Afghanistan and Iraq have made it to the list of World Heritage sites.
Ranging from the pyramids of Giza to the Great Wall of China, the list may embrace just a small part of our universal heritage, but it's already posing major challenges to UNESCO's conservation efforts.
Dire financial straits
Part of the problem is an ever growing number of countries knocking at UNESCO's door to get "World Heritage site" status for their monuments and natural treasures. A ten-day meeting of the governing committee of UNESCO's World Heritage sites, which got underway in China yesterday, is expected to consider 41 such applications.
The tougher hurdle however, is money. The preservation of nearly a thousand sites around the world takes lots of it. But with an annual budget of about $2 million for its World Heritage sites, it's obvious that UNESCO falls well short of the goal.
Dieter Offenhäuser, spokesman for the German UNESCO Commission in Bonn told DW-WORLD that the cash crunch was exacerbated by the fact that most of UNESCO's World Heritage funds are used to help poor countries apply for sponsorship or help out in emergencies such as in Iraq, where much of the country's ancient heritage is threatened by the recent war and ongoing insurgency.
St. Mark's Square in Venice. The entire city is a World Heritage site.
"That's not the kind of money that would suffice to preserve 754 sites worldwide," Offenhäuser said. "If you take just the problem facing Venice alone... 2 million is a mere drop in the ocean -- the ocean which is increasingly threatening to lap at the foundations of this city."
Looking towards the private sector
To be fair, it's not just the U.N. body that is to blame for failing to provide sufficient funds to conserve the World Heritage sites. Under the terms of the 1972 agreement, it's a matter of prestige for countries to be accepted to the World Heritage site list, but the individual governments are expected to provide safety and protection for the places they register.
Not all countries can afford to do that. Even in rich nations, state funds for conservation efforts are rapidly drying up. The World Heritage sites are thus forced to look for alternative sources of funding.
Cambodian Buddhist monks gaze out of the ruins of Angkor Wat.
"We have to increasingly fall back on private funding in the field of conservation of world heritage," Offen häuser said. He points to the ruins of Cambodia's Angkor with its world famous Angkor Wat as an example of how private sector involvement in conservation can yield results. "There's a private company there that demands an entrance fee to the temple and the funds are in turn used to protect the site," he said.
But experts say that encouraging the private sector to help out in conservation efforts can bring its own share of problems.
Marie-Therese Albert, who holds the UNESCO chair for World Heritage at the Brandenburg Technical University in Cottbus said increased private sector involvement in conservation was principally a good thing, but added there was a danger that the interests of the sponsors conflicted with the idea of World Heritage.
A view of Berlin's Museum Island.
"If a large company, which protects World Heritage sites like the Cologne Cathedral or the Berlin Museum Island, sticks their large logos on it, then I think it misses the point because it destroys the whole impression of the site," she said.
Albert added that the companies are free to advertise their heritage-consciousness in brochures.
In search of elusive funds
A scheme launched by UNESCO in 2002 to persuade the private sector to help in its conservation efforts shows how difficult it is to juggle the interests of companies with the idea of World Heritage preservation.
"To date we've managed to sign agreements with just a handful of companies," said Joanna Sullivan of the UNESCO initiative, Pact in Paris. That may partly have to do with the extensive legal work required before a contract with a company can be sealed.
But it's also an indication that companies are no longer in a position where they can readily loosen their purse-strings for such an honorable cause.