Prevention is Better than Cure

Protecting our heritage from pollution

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy

“There may have been a time when preservation was about saving an old building here or there, but those days are gone. Preservation is in the business of saving communities and the values they embody.” 

Richard Moe, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Among the many threats and challenges that heritage sites and monuments in Sri Lanka face, pollution is something that mostly goes unnoticed, until the situation is notably visible. In a country like Sri Lanka where the rate of environmental pollution is moderate yet keeps growing unless we take the necessary precautions, the negative impact of pollution on heritage will be a grave issue. 

Among the many variations of environmental pollution, there is air pollution, sound pollution, water pollution, land pollution, and light pollution that have great negative impacts on sensitive heritage sites and monuments. Therefore, it is important to understand and then analyse the many forms of pollution that can affect heritage sites and monuments, and calculate the gravity of the negative impact, and take precautions. 

Unlike Sri Lanka, in the world, there are many heritage sites and monuments that are already facing threats due to environmental pollution and that has also affected the tourists too. Mostly, air pollution causes damage to sensitive sites and monuments. For instance, the historical site of Lumbini in Nepal is facing grave issues due to the high rate of air pollution and it is amongst the topmost threats faced by the World Heritage Site. In Sri Lanka too, the deterioration of the quality of air, threat of acid rains, sound pollution, garbage pits, and their impact, and light pollution are impacting our heritage sites and monuments. Environmental pollution not only negatively impacts the sites and monuments themselves, but also the quality of life of the surrounding communities and also the existence of the biodiversity of the historic sites. Eventually, it will have a negative impact on tourism and the rural economy and gradually affect the country’s economy. 

We need to take these things into consideration and find solutions at the earliest. 

Ceylon Today Heritage’s attempt is to look into this matter and bring this to the attention of the authorities and responsible parties. Scholars and researchers could conduct in-depth studies on this matter, which can be greatly contributed to the literature on the related subject since lack of data is one problem we have in this regard. 

Few examples from the world 

An article published on the BBC News website, written by Navin Singh Khadka (Environment reporter, BBC World Service), titled Buddha’s birthplace faces serious air pollution threat (published date -10 May 2017), says that the historic site of Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal faces a serious threat from air pollution, as scientists and officials have warned before. It further says that recent data collected from air quality monitoring stations in five places across the country show Lumbini is highly polluted and that it is already located in a pollution hotspot on the Gangetic plains. 

Ignoring the warnings when the industrialised zones were expanded has caused the air quality to drop severely. In the same article, it explains that an IUCN study on three monuments of the historic site concluded that the sacred garden – the core place – was polluted by air dispersed gaseous and solid compounds. The article refers to a report authored by Italian archaeologist Constantino Meucci of the University of Rome and quotes, “On the samples of the Ashoka pillar (that was established in 249 BC by Emperor Ashoka to mark the birthplace of Buddha) gypsum, calcite, dolomite, and magnesite are present in the form of fine powder that deposits on the surface. All compounds are part of the cement production cycle.”

While dust is also a major problem at this site, tourists and monks visiting the site have told the BBC they felt uneasy while breathing in the air.

The UNECE website says that corrosion caused by chemicals and soiling caused by particles can lead to economic losses but, more importantly, to the destruction of our cultural heritage, an important component of our individual and collective identity. According to the site, a recent study led by the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) and the Institute for Conservation and Restoration of Heritage (ISCR) shows that in Rome about 3600 cultural heritage made of calcareous stone (limestone) and 60 cultural heritage objects made of bronze are at risk of deterioration. As a response to this threat, Italy has been engaged in the development of strategies and technologies to safeguard cultural heritage assets for many years.

Leshan, Giant Buddha statue in China 

According to global news, this giant Buddha statue is severely affected by pollution caused by various industrial and development work in the region. The growing number of coal-fired power plants located in the vicinity has released toxic gases that result in acid rains. It is reported that the black stains on the nose and face of the statue and the falling off of the hair curls of the statue is due to the acid rains. As a response, the government has taken measures to shut down some factories in the area. However, as it is unable to completely stop the growth of industrialization, the giant statue is facing great threats that have successfully survived for centuries. 

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal has visibly lost its brilliant white glowing appearance, once again due to heavy pollution. It is reported that acid rains and large numbers of tourists are the major factors that contribute to the pollution that affects the Taj Mahal. 

The current situation of environmental pollution in Sri Lanka

Compared to many industrialised countries of the world and in the region, in terms of environmental pollution, Sri Lanka is still doing better, although we are walking towards the negative end. 

In the article published in Ceylon Today on 27 May 2021 titled The Air We Breathe, written by Shanuka Kadupitiyage quotes the Director of Air, Water, Noise, Vibration and Environmental monitoring unit, Coordinator of Environmental Studies and Services Division (ESSD), and Senior Scientist Air Quality Studies at the National Building Research Organisation (NBRO), H.D.S. Premasiri saying that according to the recently collected information, the air pollution level in the country is staying under the normal line and it has not increased in the recent past.

However, this is not a point to be satisfied with as we have issues that are growing and if left untreated, we will find it difficult to find solutions for them. It is also reported that the wind, flowing through the country has a major part in Sri Lanka’s air pollution. This was highlighted by H.D.S.Premasiri at his keynote speech delivered at the program themed Air Pollution in Sri Lanka held in March 2021, at a discussion organised by the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives called FOCUS.

The discussion further highlighted that, because of our country’s geographically centralised location, air flowing from the Northeast during the monsoon brings in polluted air from the South-East Asian region. Pollution from Southern India also makes its way to Sri Lanka depending on the wind flowing over the country. Therefore, experts see days where there is a massive spike in polluted air over the country, sometimes even in regions that aren’t heavily urbanised. 

Regional Expert for South Asia in the Fields of Transport, Mobility, and Air Quality of the French Development Agency (AFD) M. Benjamin Fouin who attended the event said that Sri Lanka’s air quality is still significantly better than that of many South Asian countries and that it’s still not too late to reverse the effects that pollution has caused today. He also pointed out that having good policies and regulations in place can make a significant effect with minimal cost to the Government and in a short period of time.

Pollution and Heritage in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, data and literature about the impact on heritage sites and monuments due to pollution are less. 

However, it is reported that in 2001,  plans for the construction of a military airport within 2 km of Sigiriya was reported to UNESCO. The UNESCO site cites, 

1. Proposed expansion of the military airport: The national authorities responsible for the protection of the site through the Sri Lankan Ambassador to UNESCO informed the World Heritage Centre in February 2001, on the plans for the construction of a military airport within 2 km of Sigiriya. The authorities stated that the airport, if and when constructed, will negatively impact upon the site through:

Sonic vibrations which would cause damage to ancient wall plasters with paintings and inscriptions, as well as to the rock surface which is already peeling.Aircraft generated pollution which would cause damage to the above mentioned wall plaster and rock surface.

Following the invitation by the national authorities, the World Heritage Centre urgently organised a Reactive Monitoring Mission to the site in March 2001. The UNESCO Reactive Monitoring Mission found that the proposed extension of the Sigiriya airport to serve as the principal base for fighter jets would undermine the character of this site, notably due to security risks of enemy attacks and air and noise pollution which will not only impact negatively on the fragile structure of the monuments and the wall paintings but also on the flora and fauna of the natural reserves located along the flight path. In the technical study prepared by the airport planner, the national authorities were recommended to consider the expansion of the Hingurakgoda airstrip which is in better condition, hence less costly to upgrade and more appropriate for eventual use as a commercial airport.

In 2021, it was revealed by Ceylon Today that a high-rise apartment building complex was being built in the close vicinity of Sigiriya, which has many possible grave negative impacts on the site and its heritage zone, including deterioration of the air quality. 

The slight damages that appear on the surface of the Polonnaruwa Gal Vihara statues, the deterioration of the vibrant colours of the old wall paintings in many places in Sri Lanka are results of environmental pollution. 

It is not only on larger monuments and sites that environmental pollution has a negative impact but also on monuments kept indoors are affected by this. Museums and stores are equally affected by pollution. Humidity, temperature, heating, ventilation, air condition systems, lighting systems, materials used indoors (furniture, fabric, etc) are direct factors that can lower indoor air quality. 

In an article published in Springer Link titled Cultural heritage and its environment: an issue of interest for Environmental Science and Pollution Research, authored by Michel Sablier and Philippe Garrigues, attention is drawn to the influence of organics and microorganisms and their effects on sensitive historic monuments. 


Currently, as Sri Lanka is relatively doing good in terms of environmental pollution, this is the best time to take prevention methods. Certain phenomena such as monsoons are something that we cannot control, yet there are things we can do to minimise the harm. 

It is important to conduct in-depth scientific research in order to identify possible threats and their consequences and then find solutions. Rules and regulations to control pollution are important. 

To enhance the quality of air and avoid air pollution, growing trees surrounding heritage sites and monuments are important. It is also important to identify vulnerable sites and monuments and take measures to monitor tourists and other human activities to keep the air quality good and to balance the temperature and humidity. 

Certain human activities such as the lighting of excessive lamps and incense sticks may cause damage to natural monuments such as ancient bo trees or na trees; hence, such activities can be monitored. 

Respecting and safeguarding the lives of the biodiversity surrounding the heritage sites are highly crucial for the site’s existence. Also, it is important to avoid bringing plastic and polythene into heritage sites.  

We must understand that taking precautions is always more important and successful than acting when the damage is already done. Ceylon Today Heritage hopes that the DG archeology of the DOA and the subject minister understand the gravity of taking measures such as preparing rules and regulations, action plans, and money allocations to protect our heritage from pollution. Environmental pollution also has an impact on our intangible cultural heritage, which we shall be discussing in one of our future Heritage segments.

“If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for the future.. I care desperately about saving old buildings.” 

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis

Uncategorized, Ama H.Vanniarachchy, pollution and cultural heritage, Sri Lankan archaeology