Group Launches Early-Warning System for Threats to Global Heritage Sites

The city of Nineveh in Iraq was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world, but in the past 5 years urban sprawl has gobbled the core of its remains. A project launched on 15 March aims to keep a watchful eye on Nineveh, along with hundreds of other heritage sites in developing nations that are endangered by urbanization, looting, war, and other threats.

The project, called the Global Heritage Network (GHN), consists of a database and a Web site that assembles Google Earth satellite imaging, maps, photos, videos, and reports from a network of researchers, locals, and government officials. It also ranks each site's status, from black (destroyed) through green (stable).

"It's an early-warning system so that threats can be monitored in the most important and endangered heritage sites in developing countries," says Jeff Morgan, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund, the California-based nonprofit behind the project.

Last fall, the group issued a report estimating that 200 of the 500 or so cultural heritage sites located in the developing world are in danger of being lost-sites such as Guatemala's Mirador Basin, where looting and fires threaten four of the oldest Maya cities, and India's Maluti temples, carved terra cotta structures that are slowly succumbing to poor drainage and vegetation overgrowth.

All 500 sites are designated either as UNESCO World Heritage sites or as national treasures in their home countries, and all are included in the GHN database, Morgan says. His group has so far participated in planning and conservation efforts at 18 sites, working with, for instance, archaeologists, historians, structural engineers, and local residents and governments, Morgan says a key part of his group's mission is to make sure local people have a say in what happens at the sites in their backyards . Many of the sites are so poorly documented that even basic maps available through the database will represent progress, he says.

As new threats come to light, the plan is to alert the appropriate governments and international groups like UNESCO and perhaps initiate conservation planning. "GHN helps us prioritize and focus expert teams, communities, and stakeholders, as well as funders, to help save these sites," Morgan says.

Armchair tourists will enjoy exploring the project Web site. It offers a good deal of information for the 18 sites the group has worked on, although information about the rest remains sparse for now.