Redefining Environmental Security

January 5, 2015
By Priyanka Bhide

Traditional debate on climate change and environmental security has centered on energy and the dangers of fossil fuel combustion. This energy focus is now changing and the new definition of environmental security is expanding to include natural resources and food, which also have a direct impact on human populations.

The International Relations and Security Network (ISN) – a leading worldwide network of institutions and experts in security discourse- has recently focused on a series of articles on environmental security. Most of the research highlighted by ISN defines environmental security in terms of climate, food and water. Five years ago it would have been exclusively about energy.

Water has been an important focus of Strategic Foresight Group’s research activities since 2008. Our work on future scenarios showed that access to water would be an issue, which if not addressed at a political level could lead to civil war. Several events taking place today have unfortunately turned our scenarios into a dangerous reality. In a recent article for Al-Monitor's Iraq Pulse, columnist Ali Mamouri describes Iraq’s waters turning into a weapon for war: when half of Bagdad was suffering from water scarcity due to the contamination of the Tigris River by a massive oil slick caused by terrorists that targeted pipelines near the river, the other half lay inundated in water because of terrorists that took control of the Fallujah Barrage.

Environmental security is also increasingly being connected with food security.  Unpredictable climate patterns affect agricultural productivity, which combined with growing populations give rise to the possibility of conflict over limited food resources. Kent Butts and Bryan McDonald in their article for the ISN’s Climate Security series point out that “Since 2008, high food prices and high food price volatility have contributed to unrest and violence in more than 40 countries”.

On the positive side, redefining of environmental security has opened the possibility of turning challenges into opportunities for greater cooperation. In a blog post written for the ISN website, SFG mentions that water scarcity is often not an actual physical shortage, but a manifestation of the lack cooperation in our existing water resources. We also mention a study of 148 countries and 205 shared river basins conducted by us and presented in our new report “Water Cooperation for a Secure World” where we have reached the path breaking conclusion that, “Any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war for any reason whatsoever”. In the report we list several examples where cooperation over water has resulted in overall socio-economic development of countries.

Winston Churchill once said “Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.” In the case of environmental security as well, as we deal with issues larger than energy, we must strive to find solutions that promote peace and create an opportunity for growth and development.

Links to references made in the article above:

http://isnblog.ethz.ch/international-relations/reducing-the-risk-of-war-with-water http://isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?lng=en&id=179226

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