Events

Environmental Security: A Developing Country Perspective

October 17, 2000 // 12:00am

R.K. Pachauri, Director, Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) and
Vice Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)


Richard Elliot Benedick, Deputy Director, Environmental and Health Sciences Division, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and
President, National Council for Science and the Environment


October 17, 2000—"National security" is not simply a measure of military power or geopolitical strength—it also has major social, cultural, and human dimensions and implies a basic subsistence level and sustainable livelihoods, according to Dr. R.K. Pachauri, Director of the Tata Energy Research Institute in New Delhi, India. Pachauri discussed the concept of environmental security and what it means for the "silent majority" of the earth—the poor of the developing countries. Ambassador Richard Benedick served as discussant.

For the 2.8 billion people who live on less than $2 a day, environmental conditions and personal health are intimately linked to economic status. But where precisely is the nexus between poverty and environmental stress? Do we understand the links between poverty and natural resources? Can the poor take steps to ensure environmental security? For Pachauri, asking such questions is a critical step towards understanding the link between environmental security and poverty.

Pachauri broadly defined "environmental security" as the minimization of environmental damage and the promotion of sustainable development, with a focus on transboundary dimensions. "Environmental stress"—an important factor in this equation—is caused both by environmental resource scarcity (such as deforestation) and also by environmental resource degradation (such as polluted water). Economic vulnerability and resource dependency play key roles in the link between environmental change and the potential for violence and insecurity in the developing world. Developing countries also usually lack the infrastructure and institutions to respond to crises, thereby increasing the chance of violence. The majority of such disputes thus far have been solved amicably, but Pachauri stressed that this might not be the case in the future.

Pachauri then identified five areas where poverty has either exacerbated or been exacerbated by natural resource stress. First, the continuing struggle to provide food and basic needs is increasing land degradation in the developing world. (In India, for instance, TERI researchers found that twenty-seven percent of soil cover currently suffers from severe erosion.) Second, worsening pollution increasingly impacts air quality, with vehicular traffic and industrial expansion the key contributors. Acid rain resulting from such pollution has become a critical issue in the South Asia region. Third, world climate change that has led to a rise in both temperature and sea level holds dire consequences for South Asia coastal regions. In Bangladesh, for example, hundreds of people are killed every year by a monsoon and flood cycle which has become more severe due to changes in sea-level and climate changes. Fourth, both water quality and quantity are at risk due to land-use changes, deforestation, and polluted waters both locally and across national borders. TERI has found that per capita water availability in India has declined from 6,000 cubic meters per year to 2,300 cubic meters per year in only fifty years. Finally, deforestation (due to agricultural expansion and trade in forestry products) is yet another challenge for South Asia and other developing regions. Over the last fifty years, forest cover in India has dwindled to less than fifty percent, and forest lands have been diverted to settlements, agriculture, and industry.

Before moving on to solutions, Pachauri argued the importance of understanding poverty as more than merely a lack of income. Poverty is people's lack of ability to retain control over their living conditions. Thus, if a community (whether rural or urban) lacks empowerment to live in a way that is sustainable, poverty results. Other conditions (such as a lack of property rights; unsustainable resource exploitation; lack of entitlements; restricted or denied access to resources such as fuel; the impact of science and technology; global economic factors; and national economic policies) serve to strengthen the cycle between environmental degradation (both immediate and long term) and poverty.

So what can the world do to combat this situation? Pachauri identified six concrete actions that must be undertaken. First, access to resources must be addressed through ensuring entitlements for the poor, building and sustaining ability, ensuring the property rights of the community over commons, creating market access, and creating rural enterprises and jobs. Second, governance must focus on participation, the capacity and ability to address crises, and the building of political, economic, and social infrastructure. (Pachuari argued that even the developed world is weak in this area, particularly with regard to the central role of energy.) Third, property rights must be redefined with regard to common resources. Fourth, the world must reorient the development and use of science and technology. Fifth, national economic policies in their current status are insufficient because they do not ensure equitable growth or internalize environmental costs (for instance, national income accounts do not count the cost of environmental degradation). In addition, regulatory bodies are weak or non-existent, and centralized policies benefit only a small proportion of the population. Finally, Dr. Pachauri suggested that global economic policymakers should make more effort (a) to promote traditional product markets, (b) to push development assistance agencies for a greater stress on poverty reduction, and (c) to address climate change through economic measures.

As discussant, Ambassador Richard Benedick emphasized that these environmental security issues are global problems that require global solutions. He stressed the importance of Pachauri's focus on governance as well as science and technology in the crafting of solutions. Most importantly, Benedick reiterated that solving poverty and the resulting environmental degradation requires more than just money. Developed countries are just as responsible for ensuring the sustainability of not only the North but of the South.

Participants discussed the importance of population growth and migration, the growth of civil society, and the too-often-ignored impact of overconsumption in rich countries. There was agreement that, while there are many potential synergies for global, regional, and national goals, too much focus often goes into international agreements that are too weak and lack any real authority because their signatories fear loss of sovereignty. Another critical factor blocking resolution of many of these issues is the short-term focus of both politicians and the private sector at the expense of equitable, long-term solutions.

Experts & Staff

  • Roger-Mark De Souza // Director of Population, Environmental Security and Resilience, Wilson Center
  • Sandeep Bathala // Senior Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative
  • Katharine Diamond // Program Assistant, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Benjamin Dills // Program Assistant, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Lauren Herzer // Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • John Thon Majok // Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Schuyler Null // Web Editor and Writer/Editor, Environmental Change and Security Program, Maternal Health Initiative
  • Meaghan Parker // Writer/Editor, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Sean Peoples // Multimedia Producer and Program Associate, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Geoffrey D. Dabelko // Senior Advisor, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • Ruth Greenspan Bell // Public Policy Scholar
  • William Krist // Senior Policy Scholar
  • Louise Lief // Public Policy Scholar
  • John W. Sewell // Senior Scholar

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