Environment, Population Key to Security, Say Experts

Addressing Environmental Degradation and Population Dynamics May Lower the Risk of Conflict, Some Tell Environmental Change & Security Program Report

Apr 20, 2006

Maoists threaten to blow up dams in Nepal. Drought drives conflict in Darfur. Students protest in Paris. Some violent conflicts on today's front pages have deep roots in environmental degradation and rapid population growth. But these roots are often overlooked in favor of more visible explanations—a deadly oversight that threatens our understanding of violence, and with it, our security.

Bringing together authors from Nepal to Norway, from the university to the military, the 11th edition of the Environmental Change and Security Program Report explores how powerful underlying forces may engender war—or lay a foundation for peace.

According to some experts in the Report, protecting natural resources and stabilizing population growth must be part of these conflicts' long-term solutions. Others say the evidence does not support this strategy. But all agree that more research will lead to a more nuanced understanding of the links connecting environment, population, and security.

  • Analyzing Nepal's deadly Maoist insurgency, Richard Matthew and Bishnu Raj Upreti state that even though environmental and population factors are not the primary causes of instability in this critical country, they are "important elements of what has gone wrong in Nepal, and they must be addressed before stability can be restored."

  • The military may seem an unlikely venue for peacemaking, but as Rear Admiral John Sigler, USN (Ret.) explains, environmental security—particularly disaster response—is a part of U.S. Central Command's efforts to promote stability in the Middle East. "The contributions of these relief operations to U.S. security interests cannot be overstated."

  • What happens when "son preference" leaves a nation with significantly more men than women? Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer warn that gender imbalances in Asian countries (notably India and China) could lead to internal and regional strife, and affect those countries' democratic potential: "In many ways, a society's prospects for democracy and peace are diminished in step with the devaluation of daughters."

  • Henrik Urdal finds that national levels of population growth, land scarcity, and urbanization do not have a great influence on patterns of war and peace. However, "using local level data—rather than national—might reveal a stronger relationship between population pressure and conflict."

  • While youth are often singled out for their role in conflict, Sarah Staveteig proposes that a more precise measure of age structure can effectively predict insurgent-based civil wars. By studying trends in the future "relative cohort size"—the difference in the number of young adults versus the number of older working adults—policymakers could devise strategies to reduce the chances of such conflicts.

  • Ethnicity carries much of the popular blame for recent conflicts, but little sustained research has explored how demographic shifts contribute to violence. Monica Duffy Toft warns that without government and academic efforts to improve the reliability and availability of data on differential population growth, aid and intervention strategies may continue to be counterproductive or destructive.

  • Foundations are moving their funds away from programs that integrate population and environment. But Robert Engelman argues that there is still a place for the demographic case: "We can improve lives by promoting with one strategy reproductive health, the demographic transition, and environmental sustainability"—if donors step up to support it.

  • offers five perspectives on these intriguing cross-border programs that seek to build peace and meet conservation goals—at the same time. Using examples from South Asia, southern Africa, and South America, the international group of authors offer recommendations—and cautions—for those considering peace parks.

  • Book reviews cover recent publications on population, health, environment, and security.

  • dotPop links you to the web's best sources of data on HIV/AIDS.

    For more information on ECSP, contact Meaghan Parker at (202)691-4182 or at Meaghan.Parker@wilsoncenter.org.
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