In Defence of the Environment, Putting Poverty to the Sword

One can easily clean up the language of war—“collateral damage, friendly fire, smart bombs”—but cleaning up the environmental consequences is a far tougher task.

Undoubtedly it is the loss of human life, the suffering of those made homeless and hungry that must be our primary, first, concern.

But all too often the impact on the Earth’s life support systems is ignored, and ignored I, would suggest, at our peril as the growing expertise of UNEP’s Post Conflict Assessment Branch is suggesting.

Environmental security, both for reducing the threats of war, and in successfully rehabilitating a country following conflict, must no longer be viewed as a luxury but needs to be seen as a fundamental part of a long lasting peace policy.

Few can forget the lakes and pools of petroleum, the TV images of smoke and flames turning day into night, during the 1991 conflict in Kuwait. An estimated 700 wells were damaged, destroyed and sabotaged, triggering pollution of water supplies and the seas, the impact of which is still being felt.

It has been suggested that, as a result of the soot, death rates in Kuwait rose by 10 per cent over the following year. The only good news was that the over four million tonnes of soot and sulphur did not climb higher than 5,000 metres, otherwise there could have been potentially severe dangers to the regional and possibly global climate.

There are many indirect impacts of war on the environment too. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which helped inspire an international convention, says that tens of millions of explosives remain scattered around the world in former conflict areas like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bosnia and on the African Continent.

These are not only horrific hazards for people, maiming and killing returning refugees and local villagers. They effectively bar people from productive land forcing them to clear forests and other precious areas for agriculture with consequences for the fertility of soils, accelerated land degradation and loss of wildlife.

Warring factions and displaced civilian populations can take a heavy toll on natural resources. Decades of civil war in Angola have left its national parks and reserves with only 10 per cent of the original wildlife. Sri Lanka’s civil war has led to the felling of an estimated five million trees, robbing farmers of income. Many poor people in developing countries critically depend on forests for food and medicines.

Our first principle is the pursuit of peace. Indeed it should not be forgotten that the awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to Kofi Annan last year was award not only to the UN Secretary General but to the UN system as a whole.

However, warfare may be justified when all avenues of diplomacy, when all paths of reasonableness have been trod, and exhausted. The struggle to rid Europe and the world from the insanity of fascism, culminating in World War II, was vital. Evil must be confronted at all costs.

But, as the environment and its natural resources are all too often forgotten as the long term casualty of war, then equally their role in triggering the tensions that can spill over into conflict are also too often ignored.

Many conflicts on Continents like Africa have been driven or at the very least fueled by a greed for minerals such as diamonds and oil or timber.

Some individuals and groups can make a fortune under the cloak of an ideologically motivated war. It is estimated that UNITA rebels in Angola made over $ 4 billion from diamonds between 1992 and 2001. The Khmer Rouge was, by the-mid 1990s, making up to $240 million a year from exploiting Cambodia’s forests for profit.

As the world’s life support systems and natural resources become increasingly scarce, so the possibility of conflict rises. Water, the most precious resource on Earth and crucial for all life, is not evenly shared across the world and between nations. There are 263 river basins, shared by 145 countries. But just 33 nations have more than 95 per cent of these rivers within their territories.

By 2032, half the world’s population could be living in severely water stressed areas. Daily, 6,000 mainly children die as a result of poor or non-existent sanitation or for want of clean water. It is the equivalent to a quarter of the population of a large capital city like London dying every year.

Unless countries learn to use water wisely, learn to share, there will be instability and there will be tensions of the kind that can precipitate war.

Countering this is sustainable development in action. We have an alliance against terrorism, we need an alliance against poverty and solidarity with the marginalised, we need to defend nature and our natural resources

For little will ever be achieved in terms of conservation of the environment and natural resources if billions of people have no hope, no chance to care.

As Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, observed just before the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), “sustainable development is…a security imperative. Poverty, environmental degradation and despair are destroyers of people, of societies, of nations. This unholy trinity can destabilize countries, even entire regions".

The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, agreed at the end of WSSD, is the blue print for reducing poverty and delivering development that lasts, development that fosters a stable environment with social justice.

Making it operational was at the heart of a global environment ministers meeting, UNEP’s Governing Council, which took place at our headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, in early February 2003.

We were delighted to be hosting it only weeks after the peaceful Kenyan elections where a new government was swept into power on a wave of optimism. The doom and gloom merchants, sadly all too often right when it comes to African democracy, have been forced to eat their words. I am also delighted that the new Kenyan government has poverty and a healthy environment among their top priorities alongside a fight against corruption.

Like us, they believe that putting poverty to the sword is the peace policy of the 21st century.

So we need above all environment policy as a precautionary peace policy.

Governments are also waking up to the need to rehabilitate the environment if all else fails and conflict occurs. Many are now recognizing that a polluted environment, that contaminated water supplies and sullied land and air, are not a long term recipe for stability.

In 1999, UNEP and its sister, agency UN Habitat, were asked to carry out a post conflict assessment in the Balkans. Shortly afterwards, UNEP carried out a similar exercise in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania following the Kosovo conflict.

The findings are helping to guide the clean up and restoration of these countries.

We have now also completed an assessment of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Afghanistan and these studies were presented to ministers at our February meeting.

I hope the results will not only inform but inspire nations to do more so that the peoples of these troubled lands can have the healthy environment they deserve, the clean air, water and soils needed to deliver growth and prosperity.

But we must go further. There is endless debate before and after a war about the economic costs including the costs of bombs and the costs of humanitarian relief. We need to cost the environmental clean up too.

We have the Geneva Conventions, aimed at safeguarding the rights of prisoners and civilians. We need similar safeguards for the environment. Every effort must be made to limit the environmental destruction, using the environment as a weapon must be universally condemned, must be denounced as an international crime against human-kind, against nature.


 

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