International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War

Statement by Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the Occasion of the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflicts

November 6, 2004 - Across the developing world and the countries of the former Soviet Union, old chemical stockpiles, aging nuclear reactors, damaged and decaying factories and other assorted environmental time-bombs are ticking.

These scars, threatening water supplies, the fertility of the land and the cleanliness of the air, are recipes for instability between communities and neighboring countries.

If we are to prevent the environment becoming a victim of war, then equally we need to ensure that pollution, contamination and other environmental woes do not play their part in triggering conflicts in the first place.

Many factors may lie behind decisions by countries to engage in armed conflict including opposing ideologies, ancient enmities and a scramble to plunder natural resources such as timber, minerals and oil.

But it is the view of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), increasingly shared by others, that environmental degradation and a scarcity of healthy ‘natural capital’ plays an important role too.

A new report, produced by UNEP in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), highlights the risks.

It focuses on environmental hot spots in the Southern Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The work could become a blue print for early warning for Environment and Security initiatives elsewhere in the world.

The study concludes that environmental degradation can undermine local and international security by “reinforcing and increasing grievances within and between societies”.

A decrepit and declining environment can also ‘weaken states’ by depressing economic activity and diminishing the authority of the government in the eyes of its citizens.

It identifies some specific issues for that region that need to be urgently addressed. These include the rapid and poorly managed urbanization of capital cities which is straining waste management, water supplies and the transport systems.

Other areas include pollution of coastal waters, deforestation, soil degradation as a result of pesticides and erosion and old military and civil industrial sites.

The initiative is using novel mapping methods that link environmental problems with factors such as population movements and socio-ethnic mix in order to pin point key areas where tensions could turn to turmoil.

Around eight of these ‘environment and security priority areas’ are highlighted including the Black Sea coastal zone, South Ossetia, the Ararat and Valk valleys, the Greater Baku region and the Kura River estuary and southern Caspian sea coast.

The research also emphasizes the role the environment can play in promoting peace. Many of the problems are shared between communities and neighboring countries.

Joint projects to clean up sites, agreements and treaties to better share resources such as rivers and forests, and strengthening cooperation between the different countries ministries and institutions may hold the key to building trust, understanding and more stable relations.

While this work is shedding new light on how environment can be both a trigger for instability and a broker for peace, a great deal more research is needed before we can fully and precisely unravel its role.

There are places in the world where, despite appalling environmental degradation, communities and countries continue to hold the thin red line and others where there appears to be direct links between environmental vandalism and deterioration and conflict.

The extreme land degradation on the Caribbean island of Haiti being a classic case of the latter.

Governments have, as part of UNEP’s new science initiative, requested more in depth studies the first of which is likely to focus on one of the great war torn regions of the world, the Great Lakes region of Africa.

It is sadly unrealistic to presume we will reach a Utopian world in the near term. So we have unfortunately no plans in the pipeline to disband the third pillar of our environment and security work, namely post conflict assessments.

In recent years, UNEP’s Post Conflict Assessment Branch has investigated the environmental damage of wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The unit has just completed its first assessment along with concrete recommendations for improving the environment, and therefore the prospects for peoples’ lives and development, in Liberia.

Other African countries, including Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are requesting similar support following decades of war there.

However, we are certainly opening a new chapter in our understanding the environment’s role in peace and conflict.

Let us hope that, armed with more sound science, we can use the environment as a new peace policy for the 21st century so that it emerges as less the passive victim and more than active broker of a more stable and less war ridden world.


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