Protecting Environment in Conflict Settings: A Key Enabler for Peace and Global Prosperity

In 2001, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed the A/RES/56/4 which declared that the 6th of November every year would be the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. During a conflict or a war, it is understood that there is a loss of human lives and livelihoods, however, the environment remains an unpublicized victim. Exploitation of the environment and natural resources might occur in multiple ways, ranging from deforestation to intentional pollution of water bodies, to gain a military advantage. Moreover, as per an estimation by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), close to 40 per cent of internal conflicts in the last half-century can be linked to the degradation and exploitation of natural resources.  

The exploitation and damage to natural resources and the environment differ based on whether the conflict is international or internal. For example, a high-intensity conflict or war demands large quantities of fuel to facilitate the mobilization of troops, contributing to increased emissions.  While the vehicles themselves directly contribute through the physical damage to the environment and ecosystems which could destroy the diversity. In addition to these, the use of various weapons, both conventional and non-conventional, has medium to long-term effects by polluting land and water resources with toxic and other metallic effluents, including radioactive elements which could result in chronic as well as acute health risks to the population. 

The impact of conflict on the environment could be further felt in the aftermath of conflicts due to human displacement. The unrest causes large voluntary and forced migrations, which puts tremendous pressure on the environment. The location of the displaced also adds to, where essential and necessities such as water, could face pressure due to sudden and unplanned increases on the dependents. This problem amplifies particularly in urban settlements, leading to the swelling of the local population which strains the environment irreparably. The displacement might become more complex when there are cross-boundary refugee movements, which not only cause transboundary environmental impacts but also instability in the host state due to the sudden influx of people. 

The need for financing and sustaining conflicts and war is another cause of environmental damage and exploitation. However, the contestation for control over essential resources such as oil, timber, and minerals could intensify fights. Since the primary objective in such cases is to extract as much as possible for financial support, the mining and processing of minerals might lack adequate environmental oversight. The high-value environmental goods are associated with armed conflicts, especially civil wars. The Blood or conflict diamonds are an example of exploiting natural resources for conflict financing. Initially beginning in Siera Leone, the monicker blood diamonds were used to refer to those mined in warzones and sold illegally, which led to the financing of violent conflicts. 

In his message in 2022, Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres highlighted the need for reducing the degradation of the environment and climate change to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While disruption in climate and environmental degradation might not be a direct cause of conflicts, their combined impacts could exacerbate the risks of conflicts. The conflict across the countries in the Lake Chad Basin gives an example of how this dangerous nexus functions. The basin including countries such as including Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria has been vulnerable to attacks from extremists’ groups like the Boko Haram. While this has triggered a regional security concern, the impact of climate change fueling internal conflicts and displacement of nearly three million people has received relatively less attention. 

In 2021, when most of the world was busy fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the basin witnessed widespread tensions due to climate-driven scarcity among the various communities dependent on fishing, agriculture, and herding. The intercommunity conflict unfolded in Logone Birni of Cameroon is another example from the basin, where competition for land, water and food has triggered violence. The case stands an example of the climate change and environmental degradation can damage the livelihoods, health, socioeconomic equality, and confidence on the institutional settings. Hence, their degradation adds to the already existing challenges of vulnerable communities, while their protection of environment could play an integral role in peacebuilding and sustainable development. 

Environment as A Peacebuilding Tool

Issues such as relief, economic reconstruction, humanitarian relief, and political reconciliation often command immediate attention while the environment is left behind. In war-torn situations, peacebuilding is an important process aimed at facilitating conditions for ceasefires and conflict resolutions. While the environment, especially the competition for natural resources is responsible for inciting violence, it can also play a positive role in peace and confidence-building measures (CBMS). Restoration of peace in post-conflict and fragile settings involves a series of initiatives from negotiating with the belligerents to post-war reconstruction aimed at socio-economic development.  

An important policy concern in post-conflict states is to build and sustain macroeconomic stability to ensure growth restoration and employment generation. The re-establishment of public systems such as monetary and trade policies, banking systems and other key infrastructures to enable the process of development and improve the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Such vulnerable situations tend to push decision-makers to shift focus on measures capable of generating revenue quickly, which often results in investment in extractable resources from the environment. However, this could create conditions for a renewed conflict, especially in matters related to the distribution and utilization of the ensuing revenue. Hence, formulating policy and management measures becomes imperative to ensure stability. 

The building of peace and its maintenance also depends on short, medium, and long-term measures taken to meet the basic needs of life such as food, water, and shelter, while working towards strengthening governance to address faultiness that could instigate further conflicts. Integrating these policy actions with measures to manage natural resources and the environment could contribute towards peace. Cooperative mechanisms based on conserving the environment through co-management such as the Kimberly Process (KP) or the Indus Water Treaty. In effect from 2003, the KP is an international trade regime conceived to increase transparency and oversight to overcome the issue of blood diamonds by eliminating their trade. The process necessitates certification of the diamonds not being used to benefit rebel movements. These instances provide examples where the environment has played a role towards peacebuilding and continued diplomatic relations. Exploring sustainable methods to employ the environment and its ability to support economic recovery, displaced populations and reassure livelihoods needs a push in policy decisions. The aftermath of armed conflicts and war are vulnerable situations with challenges to acquire necessities of life, and a failure to respond to these needs could complicate the fostering of stability and peacebuilding. It is here that including the ideas of sustainable livelihoods as a policy measure could provide a credible framework for humanitarian assistance while also ensuring environmental sustainability. 

Despite being at the center of or destroyed during the war, the environment continues to be an effective platform and an active catalyst in opening talks, building confidence, and enhancing cooperation on a larger front by invoking shared interests. Environmental peacebuilding is a possible solution to highlight how interdependent the countries are and incentivize them to initiate communication channels across borders while emphasizing the need for shared management of the environment and natural resources. It is based on the notion that such cooperative mechanisms advance communication and interactions between adversaries, which could potentially solve the existing insecurities. Thus, recognizing the intricate interlinkage, the international community and organizations must consider the environment as an important determinant for conflict prevention as well as reconstruction in post-conflict settings. With many states entering the international stage after prolonged conflicts, the international regime, regional organizations, and multilateral forums must support them in identifying and adapting measures to avoid further outbreaks and exploitations. However, while international cooperation is imperative, a multi-level approach at the local level such as involving various stakeholders across ethnic, social, or political factions is also necessary.

[Header image: Agent Orange, a herbicide, being sprayed on farmland during the Vietnam War. Credit: Brian K. Grigsby, SPC5, via Wikimedia Commons]

Kiran Bhatt is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Health Diplomacy, Department of Global Health Governance, Prasanna School of Public Health, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. He has an MA degree in Geopolitics and International Relations from MAHE. His under graduation was in Economics (Honours) from Christ (Deemed to be University). His research areas of focus have primarily been in Political Economy, International Financial Institutions, economic warfare, defence budgeting and health diplomacy.

Prof. Dr. Sanjay Pattanshetty Professor and Head of the Department of Global Health Governance and Coordinator of Centre for Health Diplomacy at Prasanna School of Public Health, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, Karnataka, India. He has received his MD in Community Medicine from Manipal Academy of Higher Education and a double master’s in public policy and human development from Maastricht University and United Nations University, The Netherlands. He is also affiliated with the Department of International Health, Care and Public Health Research Institute — CAPHRI, Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, Maastricht University, 6211 LK, Maastricht, The Netherlands.

Prof. Dr. Helmut Brand — Founding Director of the Prasanna School of Public Health, MAHE, and a Jean Monnet Professor of European Public Health. He studied Medicine in Düsseldorf and Zürich and holds a Master’s in Community Medicine from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the London School of Economics. He is also affiliated with the Department of International Health, Care and Public Health Research Institute- CAPHRI, Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, Maastricht University, 6211 LK, Maastricht, The Netherlands

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