Preserving Libya’s Cultural Heritage Against Climate Change: Bridging the World Heritage Convention and Local Realities

Climate change is recognised among the most significant threats to World Heritage properties and is growing. […] to ensure that effective and active measures are taken for the protection […] of heritage situated on its territory, each State Party to the Convention shall endeavour, in so far as possible, and as appropriate for each country, to take the appropriate legal, scientific, technical, administrative and financial measures necessary for the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and rehabilitation of this heritage.1

Climate Change and Cultural Heritage in Libya: Global Initiatives and Policy Frameworks

Libya’s ancient cities demonstrate the country’s historical importance as a cultural, economic, and political setting and point of exchange across the Mediterranean. These cultural heritage sites provide insights into the region’s history and serve as symbols of identity and socio-cultural and economic resources for local communities. However, Libya’s heritage is now increasingly vulnerable to the escalating threats of climate change. Potentially damaging waves are expected at least once in the next 10 years and a chance of a tsunami in the next 50 years.2 An estimated 5% of urban areas will be impacted by 1 metre of sea-level rise.3 This places Libya’s coastline, where 95% of the population lives, at alarming medium-to-high risks.4 For example, ongoing coastal erosion is evident in the archaeological site of Sabratha, while the submerged city of Tibuda and the devastating floods of Derna in 2023 demonstrate the scale of the hazards. Other risks include desertification, landslides, increased moisture levels, droughts, and displacement of communities leading to a loss of local knowledge about heritage.

Global concern over the risks of climate change on cultural heritage has prompted various international and regional initiatives to raise awareness, mitigate risks, adapt to changes, and document potential losses. At the forefront of global action is UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention, which Libya ratified in 1978. Discussions about climate change impacts on world heritage began in 2005 during the 29th session of the World Heritage Committee; during which Decision 29 COM 7B.a:

“encourages all States Parties to seriously consider the potential impacts of climate change within their management planning, in particular with monitoring, and risk preparedness strategies, and to take early action in response to these potential impacts”.5

A working group was accordingly formed to develop a report titled ‘Predicting and Managing the Effects of Climate Change on World Heritage’. This report assessed risks and led to a Strategy Document for implementing management responses. The Strategy was endorsed during the 30th session, and a Policy Document on climate change impacts was in turn published. The Policy Document was adopted by the 16th General Assembly and endorsed by the World Heritage Committee at its 31st session, outlining the duties and obligations of State Parties under the Convention; stating that, “this provision will be the basis for States to ensure that they are doing all that they can to address the causes and impacts of climate change”.6 Additionally, UNESCO acknowledges that these provisions for World Heritage sites attract considerable attention and can therefore influence the adoption of good management practices for non-listed sites also. This demonstrates the influential importance of the Convention.7

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Post-Conflict Realities: Limitations in Implementing Universal Instruments

The Convention relies on the active participation of State Parties to implement strategies and policies, leveraging their contextual understanding and ability to adapt guidelines to local contexts, with the possibility of involving non-governmental stakeholders under the State’s leadership. However, the effectiveness of this state-dependent approach fundamentally depends on the State’s official interest and capacity to be involved. Given the diverse specific contexts, national interests, and institutional capacities of the Convention’s global parties, the effectiveness of this universal approach may vary significantly, as evident in cases like post-conflict Libya.

A similar example to the provisions of the Convention for mitigating climate change impacts is the UNESCO’s Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015); a key instrument for implementing disaster risk reduction (DRR) preceding the ongoing Sendai Framework. The first of the Hyogo Framework’s five objectives expected that all 168 adopting Member States will “ensure that disaster risk reduction is a national and a local priority with a strong institutional basis for implementation”, by 2015.8 This objective required that “countries must develop or modify policies, laws, and organisational arrangements, as well as plans, programmes, and projects, to integrate disaster risk reduction [and] allocate sufficient resources to support and maintain them”.9 However, success requires prerequisite national factors; mainly: (a) official interest in prioritising these actions, and (b) an institutional basis prepared to implement these actions. Consequently, Libya’s lack of progress in developing strategies, preparedness plans, and response mechanisms highlights the ineffectiveness of the Framework in the country.10 For example, while the city resilience criteria/checklist for local governments includes establishing participatory mechanisms for DRR, conducting comprehensive risk assessments, enforcing risk-compliant building regulations, and enhancing management capacities through preparedness plans, challenges in Libya such as limited decision-making autonomy, weak technical capacities, and low financial resources hindered local governments’ capacity to respond.11 12 These challenges are commonly recognised in developing countries, which Alowo (2010) describes as “plausible excuses for weak responses”, in addition to factors of corruption and poor planning.13

For these reasons, such approaches are criticised for being Western-centric as they rely on “material means and political/institutional sophistication” relevant to the Western contexts, while “much of the world […] not only lacks these means but [may also] lack the motivation”.14 In this interdisciplinary paper, I innovatively bridge the heritage field with Prevention Science and Community Development, introducing the concept of community readiness. Community Readiness Theory emphasises that the motivation and preparedness of a group, such as decision-makers and experts involved in the State Party’s role within the Convention, are crucial for the success of planned actions. It suggests that “unless a community was ready, initiation of a prevention program was unlikely, and if a program was started although the community was not ready, initiation was likely to lead only to failure.”15

This research innovatively applies the Community Readiness Model to analyse heritage policy-making, specifically focusing on the effectiveness of the World Heritage Convention’s provisions for addressing climate impacts on Libyan heritage. Findings reveal a gap between the readiness levels of heritage institutions in Libya and the expectations set by the Convention’s approaches. This highlights weaknesses not only within the State Party’s interests and capacities but also within the Convention’s approach. The paper argues for rethinking the Convention’s universally standard process by emphasising national readiness as a crucial factor for effectiveness and proposes contextually relevant policy priorities for Libya.

The Disconnect Between Policy and Practice: Libya’s Inaction on Climate Change and Cultural Heritage

Indicators of a disproportion between the policy levels of the Convention and Libya’s national readiness is evident when assessing Libya’s responses to the strategies and State obligations outlined by the World Heritage Committee’s Decision 30 COM 7.1, effective since 2007. As of the writing of this paper, Libya has not implemented any assessment, prevention, mitigation, protection, or preparedness measures regarding the impacts of climate change on cultural heritage, including coastal zones. These gaps can be traced by reviewing Libya’s reports under the World Heritage Convention for its UNESCO-listed sites, namely the Periodic Reporting and State of Conservation reports (for which Libya’s submissions are irregular), which show a lack of mention or action regarding climate change impacts. For example, despite implemented river-flood prevention measures in 1990, Leptis Magna is still vulnerable to unaddressed threats, as stressed in a 2023 World Heritage Committee Decision which “notes with concern the issue of tidal flooding and continuous sea encroachment [and] requests the State Party to develop proposals with mitigation measures”.16 Similarly, the coastal erosion and submersion occurring in Sabratha are not addressed in Libya’s reports under the 1972 Convention, albeit vividly observable on-site and by satellite imagery and highlighted by a photograph in a 2010 National Report submitted by Libya under the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.17

Despite also signing the UNESCO’s Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, ratified in 1999, and joining the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021, Libya has not fulfilled its commitments by submitting requisites including a National Communication, policy framework, National Adaptation Programmes of Action, reports, or a National Determined Contribution to date.18 19 As a result, Libya’s readiness for action is ranked at a low 184 out of 191 countries, scored according to the assessment of the country’s economic, governance, and social readiness.20

Readiness Challenge: Analysis of National Factors  

Libya’s low readiness due to the absence of policies and plans of action addressing the impacts of climate on heritage can be attributed to factors on three levels:

Legislative environment:

  • The absence of a constitution before 2011 and the prolonged interim constitution since then resulted in the absence of a legislative guarantee for equal recognition and protection of the cultural/identity symbols of Libya’s heterogeneous social groups (albeit addressed in the 2017 constitutional draft).
  • Libya’s law No. (3) of 1995 for protecting heritage does not address climate impacts on heritage.

Policy orientation and tools:

  • Libya has not yet developed a National Heritage List to recognise and protect sites, despite the intention stated in Decree No. (34) of 2019 by the Historic Cities Authority.
  • Leadership attention and investment of resources have been diverted away from addressing slow-onset threats like sea-level rise due to post-conflict priorities, such as stabilising security, politics, and the economy.
  • The prevailing approach is remedial (post-disaster recovery) rather than preventive (pre-disaster measures). This is exemplified by the catastrophic flood in Derna in 2023, resulting in the loss of 11,300 lives, displacing 40,000 individuals, erasing a quarter of the city, and damaging its heritage.21 22 23
  • The absence of effective participative decision-making and partnerships policies. (In the case of the Darna floods, this hindered the utilisation of available data to prevent or mitigate the damage before the incident occurred, despite the prior emphasis on the threat by scientific publications and non-governmental actors.)

Institutional climate and resources:

  • There is limited coordination and partnerships between the multiple governmental entities involved in heritage affairs. The Department of Antiquities (DoA), the Administration of Historical Cities (AHC), and the Old City of Tripoli Administration Bureau (OCTAB) are responsible for heritage protection, while others are involved with heritage management and promotion such as the the National Heritage Committee at the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Tourism, and others. The DoA and the AHC are affiliated with the Ministry of Local Governance and OCTAB is affiliated with the Cabinet of Ministers. This fragmentation results in scattered efforts and policy orientations, institutional conflict, and little collaboration.
  • Governance instability, including frequent administrative restructuring, hindered institutions from focusing on cumulative development. For instance, the DoA has undergone ten changes in affiliation since its establishment in 1914, including four times since 2011.
  • Budget difficulties and poor financial management have affected resources for heritage protection, despite recent improvements in governmental annual budgets. The Department of Antiquities expressed concerns regarding inadequate budget allocation compared to the significance of heritage as a national resource.24
  • Limited local capacity and expertise in heritage management pose a fundamental challenge for institutional development and operation, as there is no specialised education in heritage management offered in Libyan universities. Dependence on foreign expertise is prevalent, leading to a lack of context-appropriate policies and a dominating focus on foreign interests (such as favouring Roman sites).

These limitations hinder policy development, making it crucial to assess individual-level interests and motivations within these institutions; given that these are the drivers and operants of decisions and actions. Understanding such inta-institutional climates helps uncover potential sub-State responsive actions by assessing readiness of the community of interest (i.e. governmental heritage actors including decision makers and managers) to implement climate change actions under the Convention’s Decision 30 COM 7.1. The assessment also identifies opportunities and/or gaps for developing such initiatives.

Insights from Libyan Heritage Protection Institutions

Methodology:

The readiness of the community of interest in heritage protection institutions in Libya was assessed using the Community Readiness Model as an innovative methodology in the scope of heritage. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with six key informants, including decision-makers and senior managers from three Libyan heritage management institutions, those more involved with protection than use.25 This approach aimed to identify potential gaps and opportunities for promoting climate change adaptation measures and heritage protection initiatives, while also exploring the presence of informal policies within these institutions.26 The interviews consisted of 37 questions related to the six dimensions of community readiness: (F) available resources/data, (E) knowledge about the issue, (D) prevailing attitudes, (C) leadership, (B) knowledge about efforts including Decision 7.1, and (A) existing efforts. Scores were assigned to each dimension using the Community Readiness Model’s scale, leading to an overall result matched with one of the nine stages of readiness: (1) no awareness, (2) denial/resistance, (3) vague awareness, (4) pre-planning, (5) preparation, (6) initiation, (7) stabilisation, (8) expansion/confirmation, or (9) professionalisation/community ownership.

Findings:

The prevailing result indicated a low Stage 2 out of the total 9; where “there is little or no recognition that this might be a local problem but there is usually some recognition by some community members that the [threat] is or can be a problem”.27 Two responses partially align with Stage 3 where the problem is acknowledged to be occurring locally but there is a lack of immediate motivation, understanding/data, and effective leadership.28

The responses from the informants varied. One informant demonstrated awareness of the urgency of addressing climate change and the need to prioritise it, while highlighting the influence of low salaries and foreign funds on policy decisions, arguing that, “there are things we can easily do [but] it angers me that [we] know what is important but because salaries are low opportunities for income determine policies”.29 Conversely, other informants indicated limited knowledge and/or concern within their institution’s decision-making level, emphasising that “there is a gap between science and daily life [as the site] suffers from many things that are more damaging than climate”.30 The absence of policies, administrative weaknesses, financial shortages, and the lack of data about the threat were common themes highlighted by all informants.

Assessing National Readiness: A Crucial Step to Effective Heritage Preservation

Based on the interviews, there is a gap between Libya’s current readiness level and that expected by the Convention. Libya’s current readiness level (Stage 2) according to the Community Readiness Model indicates a need to raise awareness among experts in heritage protection institutions who shape policies and actions, before any further progress can be made. However, the Convention’s strategies under Decision 7.1 align with Stage 8 of the Model, which begins at conducting risk assessments, sharing information, initiating policy change, and evaluating efforts, which requires a minimum basis of Stage 5 readiness level where active leadership is mobilised to make decisions and take action.

This gap highlights that while UNESCO’s strategies account for adaptability in the level of action and implementation, they do not consider the differing levels of readiness among State Parties regarding their interest and preparedness to take these actions. Assessing national readiness empowers both global initiatives like the Convention and individual States to strengthen heritage protection by informing priority policies and actions that align with local levels of interest, knowledge, and needs. It also helps identify key areas for capacity building, knowledge and resource strengthening, and identifies strengths and opportunities that can be leveraged.

Policy Priorities and Strategies

In conclusion, based on the findings and the Model, the following policy priorities and strategies are recommended for the Libyan State to bridge the readiness gap, enabling it to move closer to the best practices suggested by the Convention and ultimately enhancing the protection of Libyan heritage sites from the impacts of climate change:

  1. Raise Awareness and Provide Local Data:
  • Prioritise strategies that increase awareness among experts in heritage protection institutions about the specific risks.
  • Provide local data and evidence, including local incidents and case studies, to demonstrate the direct impact of climate change on sites and emphasise the urgency and significance of addressing the issue.
  1. Involve Research Institutions:
  • Collaborate with research institutions to conduct studies and gather scientific data on the effects of climate change on cultural heritage; such as:
    • joint research projects,
    • scientific cross-sector expertise sharing (e.g. environmental fields), and
    • partnerships for risk assessments and monitoring.
  • Utilise research findings to inform decision-making and planning processes for climate change adaptation and mitigation measures.
  1. Cultivate Active Leadership:
  • Foster active leadership within heritage protection institutions to drive efforts.
  • Establish participatory decision-making and planning procedures that involve non-governmental stakeholders, such as researchers, civil society organisations, and local communities which can bridge institutional capacity gaps, help identify local priorities, and leverage local knowledge.
  1. Improve Financial Allocation and Resource Management:
  • Allocate better budgets specifically aimed at understanding, assessing, planning for, and managing the impact of climate change on Libyan heritage sites.
  • Ensure that financial resources are efficiently managed and directed towards research initiatives, data collection efforts, and the implementation of adaptation and mitigation measures.
  • Establish a dedicated funding mechanism to support projects related to climate change resilience in cultural heritage, fostering collaboration between governmental and non-governmental entities and leveraging external funding sources.
  1. Engage with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee:
  • Ensure consistency in submitting national reports under the World Heritage Convention to identify gaps and utilise the partnership with UNESCO effectively.
  • Tap into available resources and guidance from UNESCO and other advisory bodies, such as ICOMOS and ICCROM, to benefit from expertise, best practices, and funding.

References

  1. UNESCO World Heritage Centre, “Policy Document on Climate Action for World Heritage”, November 27, 2023, [link], p.8.
  2. Think Hazard, https://thinkhazard.org/en/report/145-libya/CF
  3. Medany, M., “Impact of climate change on Arab countries”, Arab environment: Future challenges, 22, 2008, p.128.
  4. Mary Fitzgerald, “Climate Change: Libya Lags Behind on Mitigation Policies”, November 30, 2023, [link]
  5. UNESCO World Heritage Committee, “Decisions of the 29th Session of the World Heritage Committee”, September 9, 2005, p.36.
  6. UNESCO World Heritage Committee, “Policy Document on Impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage Properties”, October 2007, p.7.
  7. UNESCO, “Strengthening World Heritage properties’ resilience to face climate change”, https://whc.unesco.org/en/activities/922/
  8. United Nations, “Report: World Conference on Disaster Reduction”, April 19, 2005, [link], p.11
  9. Ibid, p.2.
  10. African Union, “Report on disaster risk reduction 2015-2018: North Africa Countries”, August 6, 2020, [link here]
  11. UNISDR, “How To Make Cities More Resilient: A Handbook For Local Government Leaders”, July 17, 2017, p.32.
  12. Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, “Action Document for Support to climate change strategy and environment protection in Libya”, November 25, 2022, [link], p.16.
  13. Olowu, Dejo. “The Hyogo Framework for Action and its Implications for Disaster Management and Reduction in Africa.” JAMBA: Journal of Disaster Risk Studies 3.1 (2010): 316.
  14. Tunbridge, “Whose Heritage?: Global Problem, European Nightmare.” Building A New Heritage (RLE Tourism). Routledge, 2013. 123-134.
  15. Edwards, Ruth W., et al. “Community readiness: Research to practise.” Journal of community psychology 28.3 (2000): 293.
  16. UNESCO, Decision 45 COM 7A.34 (2023) Archaeological Site of Leptis Magna (Libya), 2023, [link]
  17. Elkawash, Abdelssalam A., “National Report on underwater cultural heritage: Libya is a State Party of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage”, October, 2010, [link], p.3.
  18. Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, “Action Document for Support to Climate Change Strategy and Environment Protection in Libya”, November 25, 2022, [link], p.79.
  19. Ibid, p.8.
  20. Climate Watch Data, [link]
  21. Reuters, “Death toll from floods reaches 11,300 in Libya’s coastal city of Derna”, September 17, 2023, [link]
  22. Reuters, “Devastation in Derna”, September, 14, 2023, [link]
  23. Smithsonian, “Rapid Report: Flood Damage to the Old City of Derna, Libya”, September 28, 2023, [link]
  24. Afrigate News,”The Government Does not Take Archaeology Seriously”, November 19, 2016, https://shorturl.at/osAN3
  25. Noting that it would be interesting to comparatively reconduct interviews following the floods in Derna in September 2023 to identify if the urgency of action is now more recognised.
  26. In this paper, informal policy refers to any interests, motives, or guidelines that influence or regulate decisions, whether these are written or unwritten.
  27. Edwards, Ruth W., et al. “Community readiness: Research to practise.” Journal of community psychology 28.3 (2000): 298.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Informant #1, personal communication, December 12, 2020.
  30. Informant #3, personal communication, December 20, 2020.

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