Environmental Security: An Evolving Concept - ACS Publications

Mar 1, 2001 - security becomes far more complicated, environmental tradeoffs become more diffi- cult to evaluate. Most re- searchers agree that a dire...
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Environmental Security:



Although environmental

security is accepted as

an element of national ill the environmencurity expand to include ental crises of this cenvironmental issues. tury threaten world This is a positive developsecurity, it remains poorly stability? Fallout ment, but as the definition of from the Chernobyl security becomes far more accident, the shrinking of the complicated, environmental Aral Sea from diversion of tradeoffs become more diffiwater tributaries to irrigate cult to evaluate. Most reunderstood and ill-defined. cotton crops, health-endansearchers agree that a direct gering air pollution from link between environmental fires in poorly managed issues and violent conflict forests in Southeast Asia, and can seldom be clearly massive destruction of arable land by displaced demonstrated, even though confrontations between refugees in Africa were dramatic events that alarmed states have occurred for centuries, for example, over the international community. Environmental probinternational sharing of surface waters and ocean relems such as these clearly increase social and ecosources. Left unresolved, however, such issues erode renomic stresses while reducing possibilities for lations between even the closest of allies. sustainable development, particularly in weak Aware of the adverse political consequences of eneconomies. vironmental problems, the U.S. Departments of State, In recent years, public awareness of the conseDefense, and Energy, and the EPA, together with other quences of environmental disasters has increased U.S. government agencies, have launched a series of throughout the world with broad recognition of the initiatives that explicitly link actions to protect enimportance of international, cooperative efforts to vironmental and national security goals. Their help prevent such threats to large populations. For activities stem largely from the 1992 U.N. Conference specialists, however, these developments over the on Environment and Development and have been years have not gone unnoticed. Scholars have exstimulated by the policies of the Clinton administraplicitly noted the erosive effect of environmental tion. Governments of other nations, international orstress on security since the 1960s. Yet, despite their ganizations, and private foundations are warnings, the impact of environmental problems on similarly concerned over the convergence of envinational and global security did not gain widespread ronmental stresses and security threats, and they have international attention until the end of the Cold War. increased funding for conferences and research proOnly then, with the diminjects to improve the underishing threat of nuclear anD AV I D N . M C N E L I S A N D standing of these issues. nihilation, did the concept According to the GLENN E. SCHWEITZER of national and global seWashington, DC-based



© 2001 American Chemical Society



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Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change & Security Project (1), more than 100 programs, foundations, organizations, and agencies here and abroad now conduct research and prepare reports that address environmental security.

Environmental security dimensions What should be the scope of environmental stresses and types of security concerns included in the concept of environmental security? The greater the breadth, the more inclusive the concept. One approach is to require that programs aimed at enhancing environmental security emphasize responses to those stresses directly affecting human health or reducing or degrading the world’s natural resource base. In particular, such responses should focus on limiting or mitigating anthropogenic stresses. Within this suggested framework, population growth and urban poverty as such are not considered environmental security issues. They are treated as indirect causes of environmental stresses when compared with more direct causes, such as human-induced pollution reaching dangerous levels and poor management of natural resources. Models have been constructed that show how these environmental stresses are linked through political, economic, social, and demographic consequences to instability and conflict (2, 3). Obviously, excessive demand on natural resources, resulting from population growth and industrial development, can have a significant influence on instability and conflict. Inequities in efforts to reverse such environmental degradation can then heighten internal conflicts. Responses to environmental stress can be adaptive, mitigative, or both. Societies can try to maximize the benefits of changes while reducing harmful impacts or they can limit the anthropogenic contribution to changes. Both strategies are necessary for stabilizing environmental conditions. However, regardless of mitigative measures, adaptation to change is usually required. In particular, many developing economies depend on access to natural resources simply to survive. The degradation of natural resources coupled with unequal access to them can affect the living conditions of inhabitants least able to cope with scarcity and those least able to adapt to new conditions or even survive at a new destination. The ever-expanding definition of security requires not only that the protection of a nation’s economic assets and its total population be considered, but also that the well-being of subpopulations and even indi110 A



viduals be considered. If water pollution reduces the catch of exportable fish, its impact on the balance of trade is a national concern; the attendant decline within fishing villages is a subpopulation concern; and the loss of jobs is an individual concern. Moreover, although nonrenewable resources usually are separate assets, renewable resources may be highly interdependent. For example, deforestation can cause erosion, which can lead to degradation of a fresh water supply within the same basin. To be sure, environmental problems, even if severe, may not be security issues. Environmental problems affecting only the United States or Western Europe are seldom perceived as security issues. Environmental problems not crossing national boundaries are also not usually considered to be security problems even though the lives of many residents of the affected countries may be at stake. International development organizations and human rights groups increasingly insist, however, that environmental problems that deprive vulnerable populations in developing countries of access to shelter, water, or food or that spread diseases, whatever the sources, are security issues. Access to water, for example, becomes critical, particularly in developing countries, when its availability is less than 1000 m3 per capita per year. Some 18 countries, including Kuwait, Malta, United Arab Emirates, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Singapore, Israel, and Tunisia, have water access currently below that level. With population growth, water diversion schemes, and further degradation of water supplies, several more countries could be added to the list. Desalination (e.g., in Kuwait) or imports of water (e.g., in Singapore) can supplement supplies in a few cases, albeit at great expense (4). On a global scale, practices leading to climate change—fossil fuel combustion, agricultural practices leading to release of nitrous oxide and methane, and the use of chlorofluorocarbons and other halogenated hydrocarbons—are the most significant transboundary issues. In some regions, climate change-induced perturbations that increase crop and forest productivity will be beneficial. Elsewhere, disastrous outcomes may be caused by changes in the frequency and magnitude of ecologically disruptive events (e.g., floods, droughts, violent storms, pest and disease infestations, and wildfires). Worldwide concern over greenhouse gases has led to labeling global warming a major international security threat. At the same time, CO2 emissions are projected to continue to rise. In China alone, emis-

There is a temptation sions could surpass those in the River was serious but not nearly as United States within 25 years (5). devastating as predicted by early to characterize every Much of this increase is attributed to press accounts. Impacts and interthe indirect effects of China’s steady ventions, however, are hard to prepopulation growth and increasing dict, because early warning, other problem as a security personal income. than discovery of the initial stages Another important security diof environmental degradation, is far problem simply to mension is the relationship befrom a scientific endeavor. Despite tween environmental problems and such uncertainties, agreements to attract attention to international agreements. When podetect and check environmental tentially harmful and inadequately degradation can play an important controlled pollution discharges vi- environmental concerns. role in avoiding or reducing the olate an international commitment, severity of regional or international the integrity of the overall environconflicts. mental agreement is directly challenged. Also, weakening of a painstakingly negotiated environmental EPA’s interests regime because of poor compliance can call into In the mid 1990s, EPA began to formally recognize question the reliability of the recalcitrant governthe security implications of many international enment in honoring other international agreements. vironmental problems. The agency currently uses enTransboundary environmental problems often crevironmental security as a framework for the following ate opportunities for nations to negotiate mutually international activities (6): acceptable solutions. Many governments are now ad• improving Russian capabilities to process lowdressing shared global problems, such as ozone delevel radioactive liquid waste from its nuclear pletion, biodiversity, and ocean dumping, as well as submarine fleet supporting interim storage in regional issues, such as acid rain, depletion of North Russia of spent and damaged nuclear fuel; and Atlantic fisheries, and pollution of the Mediterranean reducing discharges of pollutants at former Soviet Sea. In politically sensitive areas of the world, such as military facilities along the Baltic coast; the Middle East, international negotiations leading to • facilitating regional cooperation in the Middle regional environmental arrangements can help reEast in water conservation, wastewater treatment, store trust among potential adversaries. assessments of health effects of pesticides; • promoting measures to limit desertification; and NATO interests • combating illegal trade in ozone-depleting subSince the mid-1990s, the North Atlantic Treaty Orgastances, hazardous wastes, and endangered nization’s (NATO’s) Committee on the Challenges of species. Modern Society (CCMS) has set a rapid pace toward During the Clinton Administration, EPA’s Office embracing environmental security as a major issue. of International Activities intended to add other iniCCMS emphasizes that environmental security initiatives to this list of environmental security activitiatives should play an important role in conflict-resties. The candidate projects are directed at protecting olution efforts. The committee has brought military the Arctic ecosystem; addressing urban air pollution, planners and analysts together with environmental poor land use practices, and water scarcity in China; specialists to clarify how environmental protection protecting the Panama Canal watershed; addressing and defense activities intersect. NATO stresses the the environmental aspects of resource ownership following important themes: and pipeline construction in the Caspian Sea; and • Just as environmental stress can lead to conflict, combating water scarcity and communicable disconflict can lead to more environmental stress; eases in Africa. • The socioeconomic and political The agency believes that the end context surrounding environpoint of its environmental security mental stress is usually the key activities is the enhancement of nadeterminant of the level of contional security. EPA is also involved in flict that arises; and other international activities, and • Public perceptions of the potenclear criteria are not established for tial damage from environmental classifying whether these have nastress are a critical aspect of tional security objectives. There is a environmental security. temptation to characterize every NATO experts note that early inproblem as a security problem simdicators of a potential environmenply to attract attention to environtal conflict are often linked with mental concerns. political sensitivities, as well as with Notwithstanding security classicontextual factors that may magnification uncertainties, cooperation fy the projected impacts of such among nations in resolving enproblems For example, the recent vironmental problems can help leakage of cyanide from Romanian advance political stability and ecomining operations into the Danube nomic development. To this end, MARCH 1, 2001 / ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY


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Iran’s coastal neighbors The Caspian Sea is surrounded by five littoral states and the Persian Gulf by eight. All are faced with environmental problems having multinational roots and that must be solved by multinational action. ArmeniaAzerbaijan Turkmenistan

Caspian Sea

Turkey Tabriz

N Karaj

Meshed Teheran


Dasht-e Kavir


Isfahan Iraq IRAN


Dasht-e Lut



Persian Saudi ArabiaGulf 0 0

150 miles 150 kilometers

Bahrain Qatar

Oman U.A.E.

agreement on environmental objectives can be a positive outcome of diplomatic negotiations addressing a broad spectrum of contentious issues.

Iran’s coastal resources Iran’s interest in protecting its coastal resources provides an example of a security challenge with international dimensions. The nation has extensive coastal borders on the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf— water bodies that have a high potential for transboundary as well as domestic environmental problems (see map above). Iran has well-developed environmental monitoring and research programs in place, but its regulatory programs are in their early stages. The nation has experienced dangerous air pollution levels, serious coastal contamination, and degradation of agricultural lands due to excessive use of agricultural chemicals. Although Iran is an active participant in several multinational programs that address offshore oil discharges, fishery management, and coastal habitat protection, these transboundary problems continue to grow in severity. Pollution from the Volga River in Russia, coastal discharges of industrial and agricultural chemicals in all five littoral states (Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan), oil development using antiquated technology in the offshore zone of Azerbaijan, introduction of alien species, and widespread poaching of sturgeon and other valuable species are among the principal transboundary issues affecting the Caspian Sea Basin. Complicating these transboundary issues are the unresolved legal status of the water body itself (7) and the complex geopolitics of developing and exporting the basin’s oil and gas resources (8). Aggravating the situation, a water level rise exceeding 2.1 m has occurred in the Caspian Sea since 1978, and an additional 13.5 cm/yr rise is anticipated through 2030. Moreover, a major increase in coastal 112 A



resident population by 2010 is expected (9). The rise of the sea’s level harms low-lying areas and complicates responses to environmental stresses. Moreover, the physicochemical properties of waters reaching surrounding rivers and wetlands have changed; floral and faunal habitats are being damaged; seawater intrusion has destroyed agricultural lands as well as numerous buildings and residential areas; sewage and waste disposal sites have been flooded; and the hydraulic slope of rivers is changing. Negative impacts are partly offset, however, by harbor improvements that require reduced dredging requirements and by enrichment of wetlands for waterbirds and other organisms. Of special interest to Iran, the Caspian coastal region has, in the past, provided an extensive area for recreation and tourism. Besides containing ancient relics and historic monuments, the region has scenic coastal forests and mountains, waterfalls, and spas. Because of environmental degradation, Iran is gradually losing some of its recreational and tourist trade with a resulting negative impact on the regional economy. In the Persian Gulf, oil discharges from land, platforms, and ships, including U.S. naval vessels, affect the water quality. A major oil spill in 1983, oil tankers sunk or damaged during the Iraq–Iran conflict, and spills and related fires during the Gulf War damaged the marine environment. Also shrimp populations have suffered, and marshlands have been harmed from agricultural runoff and oil dispersion. Finally, there has been damage to coral reefs and slow extinction of the green turtle because of pollution. In recent years, Iran has joined with the other littoral states in regulatory and cooperative agreements to protect coastal resources. U.N. initiatives, programs of regional organizations, and bilateral arrangements provide a good beginning for promoting joint efforts and addressing serious environmental stresses. Two organizations that have cooperative research programs on a global scale are of special interest to Iranian marine scientists: the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. The most important initiative is the well-funded Caspian Environmental Programme sponsored by the U.N. Environment Programme, the U.N. Development Program, the World Bank, the five littoral countries, the fisheries programs of the Food and Agricultural Organization, and other donors. In the Persian Gulf area, the Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment was formed in 1981. It is an important focal point for preventing environmental chaos from the expanding offshore oil developments in the region. Given the stakes involved, both from the viewpoint of environmental protection and confidence building, more intensive international cooperation would be timely. Although Iranian specialists have only begun to participate in the international dialogues on environmental security, they clearly recognize the secu-

Shared environmental rity implications of developments tiary, and statistical positions realong their shorelines. garding the strength of any causaliinterests may provide Finally, pipeline routes from ty relationship between these two newly discovered oil and gas fields variables and even the weights of in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to a greater opportunity for the relevant causal variables. In a markets in the west and in Asia are study by W. Hauge and T. Ellingson critically important to Iran, whose (11), a statistically significant linkinternational negotiation government argues that the most age was found between conflict and direct routes to large markets are such environmental issues as deand cooperation. through its territory. Western govforestation, freshwater access, and ernments prefer alternative routes, soil degradation although political with both oil and gas pipelines and economic variables were found crossing the Caspian Sea; Iran labels these routes more strongly correlated with violence. An assess“ecologically hazardous”. Pipeline routes could also ment by the State Failure Task Force (12) of why states become an important consideration in the Persian failed during the previous 40 years did not yield a sigGulf region. Iran is a potential source of fresh water nificant correlation between environmental change for its neighbors, and pipelines from the mountains and state failure. The task force found state stability of Iran to Kuwait and Qatar have been discussed. to be closely linked with quality of life, and a signifiPipelines transporting gas from Iran, Qatar, and cant correlation was noted between environmental Oman to destinations in Europe, India, and Pakistan change and quality of life changes. have also been proposed. Although environmental isOne can hope that as regional military factors besues may not be key concerns in these schemes, they come less dominant in explaining state failures, shared cannot be overlooked. environmental interests may provide a greater opporIn summary, Iran’s ecological problems may not tunity for international negotiation and cooperation. have a high priority in western security agendas for the region, but for Iran, coastal ecological issues are References (1) Environmental Change & Security Project Report (Update); vital to its national interests.

Looking ahead Although the general concept of environmental security is rapidly being accepted, the discussion of coastal environmental problems in Iran underscores the importance of conducting fully developed case studies to better understand the security implications of environmental stresses. As reported elsewhere (10), case studies can document the nexus of environmental degradation and national security interests in several countries and regions of the world. Thus, more on-site investigations are needed to reveal the realities behind the concept of environmental security. In evaluating relevant security issues, the relationship between classical environmental and security risk assessments should be further developed. Security risk assessments, sometimes called integrated risk assessments, are far more inclusive in scope than just a consideration of health and ecological effects and sizes and vulnerabilities of exposed populations. They also consider political, economic, social, cultural, and demographic impacts at national and local levels, recognizing that the seriousness of such impacts varies from country to country and location to location within countries. Comparative environmental security assessments—evaluating different environmental stresses on a comparative basis—sometimes compensate for a lack of quantitative rigor in assessing political and social impacts. Although the approach involves subjective judgments, a ranking scale can assist in weighing the seriousness of different types of stresses. In conclusion, as we have seen, environmental stresses sometimes contribute to violent conflict. There are strong and varying philosophical, eviden-

(2) (3)








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Issue No. 6; The Woodrow Wilson Center: Washington, DC, Summer 2000. Homer-Dixon, T. F. Int. Security 1994, 19 (1), 5–40. Environment & Security in an International Context; Report No. 232; NATO Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society: Berlin, March 1999. Lonergan, S. Global Environmental Change and Human Security (Science Plan); IHDP Report No. 11; International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change: Victoria, BC; p. 32. Logan, J.; Frank, A.; Feng, J.; John, I. Climate Action in the United States and China; Advanced International Studies Unit, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Environmental Change and Security Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Washington, DC, May 1999. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental Security: Strengthening National Security Through Environmental Protection; USEPA160-F-99-001; U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, Sept. 1999. Vinogradov, S. V. The Tug of War in the Caspian: Legal Positions of the Coastal States. In The Caspian Sea: A Quest for Environmental Security; Ascher, W., Mirovitskaya, N., Eds.; NATO Science Series, 2. Environment; Kluwer Academic Publishers: Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1999; Vol. 67. Rubin, V. The Geopolitics of Energy Development in the Caspian Region: Regional Cooperation or Conflict?; Conference Report of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University: Stanford, CA, 1999. Islamic Republic of Iran. Caspian Environmental Programme–National Report of the Islamic Republic of Iran; Department of the Environment: Tehran, 1999. Homer-Dixon, T.; Blitt, J. Introduction, a Theoretical Overview. In Ecoviolence: Links Among Environment, Population, and Security; Homer-Dixon, T., Blitt, J., Eds.; Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.: Lanham, MD, 1998. Hauge, W.; Ellingson, T. J. Peace Res. 1998, 35 (3), 381–400. Esty, D. C., et al. State Failure Task Force Report: Phase II Findings. In Environmental Change and Security Project Report; Issue 5; The Woodrow Wilson Center: Washington, DC, Summer 1999.

David N. McNelis is the director of Research Programs of the Carolina Environmental Program at the University MARCH 1, 2001 / ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY


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