In the past they were considered as routes for transporting goods, today our rivers are being reclaimed. While river management and construction continues, over the last generation the culture and heritage related to rivers has come to the fore. Local inhabitants are renewing their expectations of rivers, which they perceive as a common good. The communities through which the river runs, those which line its banks, regard it as a resource for the local economy and also as a mark of identity. Perspectives on rivers, and the value placed upon them, are being transformed. In the North and the South alike, today the river is considered a multiple cultural, economic and social resource.
The aim of the Rivers and Heritage programme is to aid in this process of cultural reconquest of rivers. Launched at UNESCO, with the support of the France–UNESCO Cooperation Agreement (CFU), the programme’s goal is to pool existing experience of cultural value creation relating to rivers, and to offer answers to concrete questions on river management and construction, especially on World Heritage sites. This cross-cutting programme brings together UNESCO’s Culture, Science and Education sectors and mobilises the river management skills of French associates.
A network of River Centres has been set up in order to implement and run this programme. Inaugurated in March 2011 in Saint Louis, Senegal during the conference on The Heritage of Rivers and their Surroundings, it brings together associations, cultural centres, resource centres and museums dedicated to rivers. Run by civil society actors and in some cases supported by local communities, these centres are all experiencing, in vastly differing contexts, a rekindling of the interest of local people in the cultural value of rivers. The network now comprises around ten members in France (the Rhône Centre and the Loire Centre in Anjou), Argentina (the Rio Parana Centre), Senegal (the River Senegal Centre), Mali (the River Segou Centre and the Mopti Delta Centre), Latvia (the Daugava Museum) and Portugal (the Douro Museum).
The network aims to create a knowledge and skills base on rivers in order to respond to requests for expertise or technical support on construction or river management, especially where World Heritage sites are concerned. For instance, Niger’s heritage directorate requested technical support on setting up an inventory of tangible and intangible heritage in the area of Niger’s islands (included on the Tentative List), due to be flooded when the Kandadji dam, currently under construction, is filled. SIAAP, the interdepartmental wastewater authority for the Paris region made a request for support to the CFU as part of its project with the city of Huê, Vietnam in order to analyse the heritage values of the citadel’s water system. The historic city of Kowa, India also requested technical support from the network on river front development. The cultural heritage directorate of Laos asked for technical assistance in the management of the World Heritage site of Champassak, where a road construction project on the banks of the Mekong threatens to encroach on the site.
The programme will capitalise on the experience of previous projects, notably the Luang Prabang safeguard programme (in place in Laos since 1998) and the Niger–Loire project: Governance and Culture (implemented in Mali between 2007 and 2011). A first feedback was delivered as part of the World Water Forum in Marseille in March 2012, within the workshop on Water Culture in Local Governance, co-organised by the International Association of Francophone Municipal Authorities (AIMF) and UNESCO in partnership with the CFU.
(translated from French by Jacqueline Graves)