Our final messages

This section is taken from the CRITICAL project policy brief. The team collaborated over 18 months to raise the voice of the most vulnerable and marginalised, we used heritage as our tool for dialogue around climate change adaptation and we learnt so much about heritage and the opportunities that can be found at a local level to overcome the climate crisis. We hope that you leave this course we a positive renewed energy to tackle climate change using your heritage toolkit. Engage, discuss and share your cultural heritage for the good of our society. The short video below provides some key take-home messages whilst you can read our summary and recommendations for policy makers, researchers and practitioners below.

Heritage is much more than the preservation of old buildings and sites. What we eat, how we dance, how we mourn the dead, what we sing and how we love, are practices that can sustain all sorts of onslaughts. How this is represented and who represents becomes key in any conversation after catastrophe.”

-Dominque Niemand, Research Associate, University of Pretoria, South Africa.


There can be no sustainable development without Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) including Climate Change Adaptation (CCA). Yet these rely on a foundation of understanding risk in all its complexity. Heritage is a missing component of conventional risk approaches, despite its ability to shape our identity, deliver capacities, and expose vulnerabilities. The CRITCAL project aimed to better understand the role of heritage within risk assessment through the investigation of three case study sites and developing a community of practice across three Low-Middle Income Countries (LMICs). The case study sites identified were across three scales: the small-scale settlement of Elandskloof in South Africa; the city region of Yogyakarta, Indonesia and a national approach across Sri Lanka. Exploring these three scales we were able to capture a narrative-based risk assessment for heritage and found that heritage opens avenues for dialogue on livelihoods, gender, local level capacity and vulnerability.

Our case studies

At a national scale, Dr Karunarthna carried out multiple interviews and facilitated two workshops in rural settlements across Sri Lanka. Furthermore, her work included a review of historical literature exploring the role of women in traditional rural practices. At a city-scale, Dr Retnowati and Ms Anantasari carried out a series of interviews with key stakeholders along the River Code in Yogyakarta region. In South Africa, Prof O’Connell and Ms Niemand led two workshops, a household survey and a series of interviews in Elandskloof. In addition, a review of climate data for each site and a systematic synthesis of literature related to heritage, risk and value was undertaken (Crowley et al 2022).

Key take-home messages

“Cultural memories can create an intellectual platform to brainstorm potential use of the heritage practices for a sustainable future” 

-Dr Dulma Karunarathna, University of Victoria, Canada.

Local risk narratives have challenged conventional top-down approach to understanding the threats to heritage from climate change. We find that our case studies identified how local community value place, and how heritage can be a mechanism for engagement with adaptation. Conventional risk assessments for heritage sites rarely take into account local level values and are currently largely lacking in LMICs (Crowley et al 2022). Heritage is considered a resource in the three case sites. In Yogyakarta, the river is a heritage asset and forms a cultural axis through the city. In Elandskloof, a narrative of loss in terms of intergenerational knowledge due to forced removal and climate change were uncovered. The capacity of women and their traditional environmental knowledge for climate adaptation was captured across Sri Lanka. The research findings were discussed at a final stakeholder workshop in March 2022 resulting in the identification of three areas of critical thinking:

  • Heritage as procedural – That heritage should not necessarily be preserved in a static state without understanding its influence in local and regional level resilience building and how it is influenced by socio-economic change as well as environmental stressors.
  • Heritage as a research and engagement tool – There is a need for more creative and local level methods for discussing vulnerability and capacity. Our research has found that using heritage as a lens opens a dialogue on place-based issues vital for adaptation and wider resilience.
  • Heritage as adaptation and vulnerability influencers – Heritage is part of a local people’s vulnerability and capacity for CCA and a crucial component in resilience building. Heritage can be a critical asset for people living with environmental change and how heritage is ‘protected’ can have significant impact on people’s vulnerability. For example, the designation of UNESCO world heritage status can exclude the needs of local people, whilst embracing local environmental expertise can open up space for hybrid knowledge production that leads to improved adaptation.

The research team reflected on their cross-disciplinary work during this project at a time of global pandemic. A learning approach was central to this project and the interdisciplinary team has captured and shared a diversity of voice on heritage through a freely available e-Learning course, a series of videos as well as ArcGIS story maps.

Lessons learnt

Disasters related to climate change and environmental damage have put cultural traditions and cultural landscapes at unprecedented risk. The impact of climate change on heritage requires improvements in the planning and management.”

– Dr Arry Retnowati, Centre of Excellence in Technological Innovation for Disaster Mitigation (GAMA-InaTEK), Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

  • Local led research design that is fully supported and flexible enabled a depth of investigation led by international co-investigators.
  • The COVID pandemic not only led to challenges in continuity for the research teams due to illness, as well as how to safely access isolated settlements but there was a loss of elder-held knowledge within those settlements.
  • Full team face-to-face meetings were not possible during the project. Virtual meetings worked well and enabled attendance but a full team meeting would have improved team discussions and refinement of final outputs and future roadmap (see Figure 1).

Recommendations for policy makers, researchers and practitioners – let your voice be heard!

There are three core recommendations that speak across different audiences:

  • Recommendation 1: Examine and support the role of heritage for adaptive capacity and resilience building.
  • Recommendation 2: Enable access to, and dialogue around, climate change information for people living in isolated and marginalised settlements.
  • Recommendation 3: Expand the resources for local level adaptation through heritage driven risk assessments.

For funders and policy makers at an international scale:

  • Move away from heritage as a built asset that needs preserving or protection. Consider instead a narrative of heritage as a capacity for adaptation and resilience building.
  • Ensure that UNESCO World Heritage Site Outstanding Universal Value is balanced with local level understanding of value for heritage.
  • Invest in adaptation funds that are driven by the local level needs, and aim to move beyond assessment into implementation, monitoring and learning.
  • Ensure all funds enable local meaningful participation and target forgotten or marginalized voices.
  • Support interdisciplinary and women led applied research projects that test new ways of thinking and doing with local people rather than for local people.

For country-level policy makers:

  • Enable funds that provide access to national and local scale climate change information to the local level for local decision making that compliments local experiences and knowledge.
  • Enable flexible and long-term adaptation funding that includes local people, their livelihoods, and their heritage.
  • Take an inclusive and cautionary approach to UNESCO WHS status, considering the positive and negative impacts on livelihoods, socio-cultural, socio-economic power relationships and land use.

For researchers and civil society:

  • Evaluate heritage hotspots to capture a diversity of case studies demonstrating the value and influence for climate change adaptation and disaster management.
  • Enable locally led research that is flexible and designed by local researchers based in country.
  • Provide freely accessible space for sharing and learning through new technologies.
  • Build in a sharing of findings and tools back to the local people who are central to your research.
  • Enable access to and dialogue around climate change information for people living in isolated and marginalized settlements.
  • Enabling climate change literacy across stakeholders from local people to policy makers is essential. This should encompass being aware of both climate change and its anthropogenic causes and underpins informed mitigation and adaptation responses.

We would like to thank and acknowledge our funders the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and UK Department for Digital, Cultural, Media and Sport (Award ref: AH/V006371/1). We would also like to thank our expert advisory panel for their invaluable time and support throughout this project in particular Professor Andrew Dugmore and Dr Sukanya Krishnamurthy at the University of Edinburgh, Professor David Harvey and Professor Nick Shepard at Aarhus University, Denmark, and Terry Cannon at the Institute for Development Studies, UK.

We would also like to thank those who have contributed through reviews, video contributions and attendance at stakeholder workshops.

Overall, we would like to acknowledge and thank the people who have contributed their time and knowledge to this project from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and South Africa.