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Environmental Security in Times of Armed Conflict

Using a progressive environmental security concept can help to tackle a range of environmental issues related to armed conflict, such as deforestation, loss of biodiversity, tensions over natural resources, conflict pollution, and damage to ecosystems. The environment can actually play a role in peacebuilding. This article briefly outlines why such an inclusive and environmental protection approach is needed and how it could be implemented.

This summer, Iraqi citizens in Basra demonstrated in the streets to protest a serious public health crisis caused by polluted water. The condition of their water infrastructure was deplorable after years of devastating wars, corruption, and droughts and regional hydropolitics. More than 100,000 people have reportedly been poisoned by polluted water, while recent estimates warn that some 277,000 children are at risk of diseases, such as cholera due to rundown water and sanitation facilities at schools.

The collapse of Iraq’s environmental security is a cautionary tale that reminds us why this concept deserves more priority in the global debate related to climate change, natural resources, and armed conflicts. Addressing the conflict-environment nexus is becoming more urgent, as more armed conflicts around the world damage ecosystems upon which people depend.

In light of this week’s International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, I want to make a case for using a progressive environmental security concept that can help us tackle a range of environmental issues related to armed conflict, such as deforestation, loss of biodiversity, tensions over natural resources, conflict pollution, and damage to ecosystems. The environment can actually play a role in peacebuilding. In this blog I will briefly outline why such an inclusive and environmental protection approach is needed and how it could be implemented.

Defining Environmental Security

The concept of environmental security goes back to the Cold War era. Back then, the environment was seen as something that posed a threat to humans. For example, the impact of  nuclear weapon production, or military polluting activities by the former Soviet Union and the long-term environmental impacts in relation to the US national security. The definition could vary, depending on who was using it. The United States viewed a lack of access to natural resources such as oil as an environmental security threat. The definition depended on who was using it, with different versions used by the United States, think tanks, international organizations such as UN Environment and United Nations Development Programme, and academia.

While a generally accepted definition of environmental security does not exist, the Millennium Project’s newer definition involves “repairing damage to the environment (a) for human life support and (b) for the moral value of the environment itself; and preventing damage to the environment from attacks and other forms of human abuse.”

Generally speaking, the definition has shifted from seeing the environment as a threat to national security to regarding it as a way to establish more cooperation and diplomacy to protect the environment. The concept of environmental security as such changed from protection from the environment, that is, seeing it as a threat,” towards “protection of the environment.

This paradigm shift led to new opportunities to explore the environmental dimension of conflicts. One could explore the role of natural resources as conflict triggers and sustainers, as well as how conflict affects ecosystems. Thinking about environmental security in this new way can help us understand not only how important the environment is for the well-being and the future of the planet, but also how it can be a mechanism for cooperative initiatives.

Given the growing global impact of climate change, the depletion of natural resources and disappearing ecosystems, we can no longer deny that preserving the environment as we know it has become existential. One does not have to be a pessimist to imagine what could go awry. Hydropolitics, lack of rainfall and pollution in southern Iraq, and those thousands of people getting sick are ominous signs of what the future may bring. Seeing how a country mismanaged water sources during a drought lead to agricultural failures and gave rise to support for terrorist groups like ISIS should be a wake-up call.  

Environmental stress will likely grow in the years to come in these areas, affecting natural resources such as water and agricultural lands, thus increasing tensions over access and by extension, security of livelihoods. Therefore, if we aim to be ambitious about protecting the environment in relation to armed conflicts we should allow this progressive concept to inform conflict analysis, prevention, response, and reconstruction.

Protecting the Environment

Addressing the environmental consequences of armed conflicts specifically through a protection lens was reaffirmed by the Global Environment Facility’s publication Environmental Security: dimensions and priorities in June 2018. The report boils down the debate to a core issue stating that the concept “underpins the rationale for investment in global environmental benefits and is essential to maintain the earth’s life-supporting ecosystems generating water, food, and clean air. Reducing environmental security risks also depends fundamentally on improving resource governance and social resilience to natural resource shocks and stresses.”

The report describes how ecosystems and services, including food and clean water, disease and climate regulation, and soil formation, are essential for human well-being and security. Armed conflicts affect the viability of the investments we make in environmental protection. The resulting pollution and damage, for example, from burning oil wells or other toxic remnants of war threatens our lives and livelihoods, as we have witnessed in many ongoing conflicts, including the outbreak of cholera in Yemen caused by attacks on water infrastructure. In addition, degradation of ecosystems and competition over natural resources increases the risk of conflicts. More environmental cooperation can therefore also be a tool for conflict management, prevention, and cooperation.

Environmental Window of Opportunity

The sum of all these developments could ensure this progressive interpretation of environmental security becomes a given in the cycle of conflict analysis, response and reconstruction in armed conflicts. From a practical perspective, this means the environment could play an essential role in policy making and planning when the environmental dimension—such as tackling identification, monitoring, and clean-up of conflict pollution and unsustainable practices—of armed conflicts is debated. On the prevention side, mapping conflict potential over natural resource and related environmental governance issues should be included in policy response, leading to mitigation of conflict and remove barriers for cooperation among local communities.

On a policy level, there is growing interest in strengthening the right of people to live in a healthy environment. The United Nations Environment Assembly’s (UNEA) resolutions on conflict and environment and the French-led initiative Global Pact on the Environment, are setting the stage for more progress on environmental security.

Such an inclusive and progressive environmental security approach can help us invest the right means and methods to tackle environmental vulnerability, human health risks and societal concerns that result from armed conflicts. Let us pause today to remember why leadership and innovative solutions are needed to shield the environment from exploitation.

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