You may have missed the news, but on the same day the Great Barrier Reef dodged demotion to UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger, the Brits had World Heritage status stripped from one of their 32 sites. Liverpool was just the third site to be removed from the World Heritage List, losing its spot because of the impacts of new developments – including the multi-million-pound Liverpool Waters project and a new stadium for Everton FC – on the six areas of the city's waterfront covered by the listing.
Local politicians expressed anger at the delisting, with mayor Joanne Anderson saying she would investigate options for appealing against the "incomprehensible" decision. It was a stark warning to the 51 sites now sitting on the danger list - and in fact every one of the 1125 current World Heritage sites - that scoring a spot on the prestigious list is one thing, but holding it is another.
Every site on the World Heritage List is chosen for its outstanding natural or cultural value or both. The World Heritage Centre's monitoring process requires governments to deliver regular reports on conservation and protection measures for each site, and scientists and community members can also raise concerns about sites they consider to be in danger.
If the World Heritage Centre has concerns about a site – which most commonly relate to war, natural disaster or unbridled development – it sends a warning letter to the government.
This often brings results. The Russian city of St Petersburg, for instance, moved a proposed 470-metre tower nine kilometres from the city centre to preserve its heritage listing.
States occasionally nominate their own sites for inclusion on the danger list, as the United States did for the Everglades National Park, where the aquatic system is severely degraded.
A site that is placed on the danger list may stay there for years. Of the 51 properties now on the danger list, 10 have been there for more than 20 years, while another 14 have been listed for at least a decade.
Blue Hole in the Belize Barrier Reef. Photo: iStock
Sites can also be removed from the danger list if they address the issues in question. The Belize Barrier Reef, Colombia's Los Katios National Park and Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, were all removed from the list this year.
Only in the most extreme cases is a site deleted from the World Heritage List. The first to lose its listing, in 2007, was Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, after the government reduced the protected area by 90 per cent following the discovery of oil, and the oryx population fell from 450 down to just four breeding pairs.
Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman. Photo: Alamy
In 2009, Germany's Dresden Elbe Valley was also delisted after local authorities went ahead with building a much-debated road bridge across the Elbe Valley, despite the German government offering to fund a tunnel instead.
In 2017, one of Georgia's three World Heritage sites was partially delisted. The joint listing for the Bagrati Cathedral and Gelati Monastery was amended to exclude Bagrati Cathedral after renovations compromised the cathedral's medieval character.
The Bagrati Cathedral in Georgia. Photo: iStock
The director of UNESCO's World Heritage Centre in Paris, Dr Mechtild Rössler, has said that being placed on the danger list is not a punitive measure, but rather an alarm bell.
"It is really a call for action and that is the fundamental idea. The whole world needs to know there's a site that's under threat and we all have a duty to preserve [it] for generations to come."
Unsurprisingly, sites in poorer countries with fewer resources are more likely to end up on the danger list than sites in rich countries. Sites on the danger list include the tropical rainforests of Sumatra, national parks in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and archaeological sites in war-torn Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali.
Just three sites on the list are located in rich countries: Austria (the Historic Centre of Vienna, threatened by overdevelopment), the US (Everglades National Park) and Israel (the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, proposed by Jordan).
Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, Israel. Photo: iStock
In recent years, climate change has replaced invasive alien species as the biggest threat to natural World Heritage sites. A 2020 report said climate change poses a high or very high threat for 33 per cent of these sites, which include 29 reefs.
Climate change is one of the main reasons that the Great Barrier Reef is considered a candidate for the danger list. What will happen to the reef's listing is still unclear. UNESCO will carry out a mission to the reef in the coming months and Australia will need to send a progress report to the agency by February 2022, after which further decisions may be made.