Is Enough Being Done to Protect European Cultural Heritage Resources From Flood Risk?

It is 50 years today since the devastating floods in the city of Florence, Italy. It is thought that over 100 people died in the flooding, with around 20,000 people left homeless. At its highest, the water reached over 6.7 metres in the Santa Croce area.

The Florence Floods of November 1966 are also famous for the damage and destruction they caused to the numerous collections of books, manuscripts and fine art for which the city is famous.

Collections at the Uffizi Gallery, Archives of the Opera del Duomo, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze and the State Archives (Archivio di Stato) were all severely damaged. It is estimated that between 3 and 4 million books and manuscripts and 14,000 works of art were damaged in the floods.

Crucifix, Cimabue, Santa Croce, 1287–1288. The work was been in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence since the late thirteenth century, and at the Museo dell'Opera Santa Croce since restoration following flooding of the Arno in 1966. It remains in poor condition despite conservation efforts. Photo: Sailko under CC BY-SA 3.0
Crucifix, Cimabue, Santa Croce, 1287–1288.
The work was been in the Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence since the late thirteenth century, and at the Museo dell’Opera Santa Croce since restoration following flooding of the Arno in 1966. It remains in poor condition despite conservation efforts. Photo credit: Sailko under CC BY-SA 3.0

Fifty years on from the Florence Flood of 1966, it is an appropriate opportunity to examine the current status of the protection of cultural heritage assets from natural disasters in Europe.

Heritage resources and assets include, but are not limited to, historic buildings and structures, the contents of museums and archives, and monuments. This article will focus on the situation in Europe, with a later article to follow focusing on the US context.

Le Musée d'Orsay, Paris, June 2016. Photo credit, CC BY-NC 2.0
Le Musée d’Orsay, Paris, during the floods of June 2016. Photo credit, CC BY-NC 2.0


Although many people may not be aware of it, cultural heritage plays an important role in the lives and socio-economic well-being of large sections of communities living around the globe.

In Europe, for instance, it is estimated that the tourism sector, which is largely focused on historic cityscapes, buildings, monuments, precincts, museums and landscapes, was valued in 2006 at €586bn (US$642bn, £527.5bn), and employed up to 9.7 million people. It was further estimated that investment in conservation amounted to €5bn (US$5.5bn, £4.5bn) per annum, with its attendant employment and income generation benefits. (Heritage and Resilience – Issues and Opportunities for Reducing Disaster Risks: prepared for the 4th Session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, 19-23 May 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland). The loss of heritage resource assets to floods or other disasters could therefore impact negatively on the livelihoods of large numbers of people, long after the immediate effects of the disaster have been dealt with.

Semperoper in Dresden, flood in spring 2005. Photo: Tilo Riemer CC BY-SA 3.0
Semperoper in Dresden, flood in spring 2005. Photo: Tilo Riemer / Wiki Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

River floods are reportedly the most common type of natural disaster in many European regions and, being high impact events, are, historically, relatively well-documented. Flood water levels have often been recorded in situ, on bridges and buildings, as well as being described in literature.

A detailed analysis of records for the water gauge on the Lahn River in Germany revealed that the bridges had suffered 60 floods between the years 1255 and 1984 – an average of once every 12 years – of which 22 were major flood events.

Increasing human activities alongside rivers over time, including urban development and agriculture, combined with the effects of climate change, have brought new threats to cultural heritage. Not only physical threats to buildings and infrastructure, but also to the contents of museums, archives and other heritage buildings. Flash floods, characterized by heavy rainfall events and the rapid rise and fall of water levels within a short time, are a growing symptom of climate change.

Floods in historic York, England, December 2015. Photo: Allan Harris / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Floods in historic York, England, December 2015. Photo: Allan Harris / Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As such, it is clear that protection of cultural heritage resources should be a high priority in national disaster management plans. This is not always the case, however, but there have been a number of initiatives to promote protection of heritage resources from natural and man-made disasters over the past decade.

The CHEF Project

According to a 2006 European Parliament study, ’Protecting the Cultural Heritage from Natural Disasters’, protection of heritage resources was inadequate in at least three respects. Firstly, although comprehensive disaster management schemes existed in most regions for protection of human life and property, they often completely failed to address the appropriate protection of cultural heritage items. Secondly, effective risk management of heritage assets was rare owing to a lack of appreciation of both market and non-market values of these resources. And thirdly, owing to a lack of understanding of the structural state and condition of heritage buildings, combined with inaccurate hydrological predictions, inadequate or incorrect protective measures were implemented.

As a result of this report, the European Commission commissioned a joint research project on Cultural Heritage Protection against Flooding, under the acronym CHEF, which commenced in February 2007. The main goal of the CHEF project was to provide recommendations for flood preparedness and the prevention of damage to, and loss of, both moveable and immoveable cultural heritage objects and sites; the project also undertook analysis of flood impacts.

Flood damage in Prague, 2006. Photo: Courtney Powell / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Flood damage in Prague, 2006. Photo: Courtney Powell / Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The CHEF project coincided with the early stages of the Hyogo Framework for Action2005-2015: ‘Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters’ (HFA), adopted at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, held from 18 to 22 January 2005 in Kobe, in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan. The CHEF project had a three-year duration and ran until early 2010, pulling in experts in a wide range of fields from seven different European countries.

One of the main aims of the project was to promote “the integration of multidisciplinary research as scientific support to European policies”. Participants considered a range of aspects in aiming to avoid or mitigate flood-related damage to items of cultural heritage, including historic significance, context, structural factors, and location in risk areas, as well as having to address challenges such as the lack of relevant documentation, uncertain structural conditions, and unknown material characteristics.

The study concentrated on technical and scientific aspects and seems to have given little attention to promoting the legal aspects of the integration of protection of heritage assets into national disaster risk reduction programmes. It identified geotechnical problems as one of the most important and difficult issues related to the impact of floods on historical structures, frequently resulting in groundwater damage to building foundations, invariably initiating partial or total collapse.

In addition, water saturation leads to loss of load-bearing capacity of stone masonry, a situation worsened by stress gradients arising from differential rates of swelling in the structural elements from water ingress. Porous building materials were often found to deteriorate when saturated, while crystallization of mobilized soluble salts also led to secondary damage.

A wide range of important recommendations for protection and restoration of heritage assets were arrived at following intensive scientific investigation, such as appropriate measures for the protection and the handling and repair of various historic materials. The challenge, however, remained for these recommendations to be incorporated into standard operating procedures across the region.


The CHEF project fed into the European Forum for Disaster Risk Reduction (EFDRR), which was established in 2009 as a forum for exchanging information and knowledge, coordinating efforts throughout the Europe region, and for providing advocacy for effective action to reduce disaster risk.

The EFDRR was also to serve as a platform for promoting “a good political climate for the implementation of the HFA” – in addition to EU member states, the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Initiative for South Eastern Europe and the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR) participated in the forum.

The Venice Declaration

Still, there was no clear indication that the protection of cultural heritage resources would be receiving due attention. However, in March 2012, a conference entitled “Building Cities’ Resilience to Disasters: Protecting Cultural Heritage and Adapting to Climate Change” was jointly organized by the UNISDR and the City of Venice, and attended by mayors of European cities, representatives of disaster risk reduction agencies at local and national government levels, as well as of regional organisations, the private sector and three UN bodies. The aims of the conference included consideration of “the key role played by disaster risk reduction measures and the protection of cultural heritage.”

Floods in Venice, November 2010. Photo: A.Currell / Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
Floods in Venice, November 2010. Photo: A.Currell / Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

The conference concluded with the signing of the Venice Declaration on 20 March 2012, which included the following resolutions:

“c. Further the engagement of European local level city networks in embracing resilience to disasters with a particular focus on cultural heritage protection and climate change adaptation by promoting and embracing the objectives of Making Cities Resilient Campaign;

d. Support the integration of heritage concerns into national and local disaster risk reduction policies and plans and, at the same time, ensure that disaster risks are taken into consideration within management plans and systems for heritage properties in their territories, notably for World Heritage Cities”.

With the Making Cities Resilient Campaign and the Mayors Adapt / Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy initiatives gaining momentum (see our article ‘European Cities must step up Adaptation), these resolutions reflected a growing area of concern throughout Europe, and beyond, for the need to protect not only human lives and physical infrastructure, but also cultural heritage resources.

Heritage and Resilience

In May 2013, the Fourth Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction took place in Geneva, Switzerland. This biennial forum, organized by the UNISDR, brings together international role players committed to reducing disaster risk and building the resilience of communities and nations and in 2013, one of its goals was to prepare a way forward for the post-HFA agreement (termed HFA2 at the time).

One of the presentations, ‘Heritage and Resilience: Issues and Opportunities for Reducing Disaster Risks’, encapsulated the status and progress of efforts to promote the protection of cultural heritage resources, but still sounded the warning that “it is critical to undertake efforts to advance heritage concerns in the wider agenda for disaster risk reduction and to raise awareness of disaster risk reduction among heritage managers and professionals.”

The presentation was accompanied by a publication of the same title, which makes fascinating reading, and can be found here.

On 10 December 2013, the European Parliament passed European Civil Protection Mechanism legislation, solidifying disaster risk reduction considerations within the law of the EU, with particular focus on risk assessment, risk management planning, and peer reviews. Recognition of the strong linkage between disaster risk and climate change motivated the organisation of short-term courses at masters’ level at several institutions, including a “Cultural Heritage and Climate Change Impact” course coordinated by Italy’s Ravello Centre during the years 2013 to 2015.

As the HFA concluded in 2015, countries were asked to provide their viewpoints on how best to continue the progress that had been made in disaster risk reduction under the current framework; France proposed better integration of the protection of cultural heritage within the new framework.

The Sendai Framework

The HFA was succeeded by the ‘Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030’ (the ‘Sendai Framework’), adopted at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) held in Sendai, Japan, in March 2015. It represents a voluntary, non-binding agreement which holds that the state has the primary role to reduce disaster risk, but recognizes that the responsibility should be shared with other stakeholders including local government, the private sector and other stakeholders.

Embedded within Priority 3 of the Sendai Framework is the proposal for “investment … to enhance the economic, social, health and cultural resilience of persons, communities, countries and their assets, as well as the environment”, which may be interpreted as support for strengthening the resilience of cultural assets to disasters.

Cultural Heritage and Disaster Risk Management: The Way Forward

In fact, at the 6th European Forum for Disaster Risk Reduction that took place in Paris, France, on 7-9 October 2015, a presentation given on the topic ‘Cultural Heritage and Disaster Risk Management: The Way Forward’, stated that “The Sendai Framework is breaking new ground in recognizing the role of culture and cultural heritage as components of disaster risk management.”

The conference included a field trip to the Louvre Museum to find out what preparations have been undertaken to protect its priceless art treasures from the risk of floods. In addition to waterproof doors, coffer dams, and pumps, there is an evacuation plan to be executed by specialist staff within the 72-hour period triggered by a high level alert, in terms of which artworks will be relocated to a purpose-built 20,000 square metre (215,278 square foot) warehouse in Liévin in northern France.

At the end of conference, the participants issued a Declaration, the “Paris Outcomes”, which stated, at paragraph 17, the need to: “Emphasize that prevention of damage to cultural heritage contributes significantly to economic development, innovation and jobs creation and should be addressed duly considered by national platforms. Encourage disaster risk reduction analysis priorities of cultural assets and agree to encourage preparedness for disaster risk for cultural heritage, notably at World Heritage Sites, drawing on past experience, when relevant, in combination with innovation.”

The concerns raised in the 2006 report have thus progressively been brought to the forefront, for incorporation into the disaster risk reduction plans and policies of European countries.

Said Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): “One planet, one chance to get it right and we did it in Paris. We have made history together. It is an agreement of conviction. It is an agreement of solidarity with the most vulnerable. It is an agreement of long-term vision, for we have to turn this agreement into an engine of safe growth.”

In a forthcoming article, the status of disaster risk reduction for cultural heritage resources in the USA will be investigated.