From Environmental Security to Environmental Peacemaking | Wilson Center

From Environmental Security to Environmental Peacemaking

The authors in Worldwatch Institute's Worldwatch Magazine and State of the World 2005: Redefining Global Security suggest that environmental security is developing in new and dynamic directions. At an Environmental Change and Security Project meeting facilitated by Hilary French, the director of the Globalization and Governance Project at the Worldwatch Institute and special advisor to the United Nations Environment Program, presenters discussed the causes of this shifting focus.

Retired Colonel Gregory Foster of the National Defense University spoke on "Rethinking Security: The Environmental Connection." Stressing the need to redefine and rethink security, Foster argued for reinvigorating the 1990s debates on broad security concerns, causations, and interdependence:

There is a string or chain of causation, and our tendency is to…deal with more visible proximate symptoms because they are easier to get hold of, rather than trying to come to grips with underlying causes…. There may be a masking phenomenon at work, in which those ostensible political, social, military, and economic causes of such things as unrest, violence, conflict, and destabilization…may mask underlying, less visible, less obvious environmental sources of dissatisfaction, discontent, and alienation.

Frequent collaborators Ken Conca, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, and Geoffrey Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Project, looked at the neglected flip side of the environment's role in confidence building. Both agreed that the environment's peacemaking potential is frequently underanalyzed and ignored by policymakers and decision-makers.

Competition for water resources can lead to violent conflict between water users at the subnational level, Conca noted: "Water is continually a source of violent conflict, because it is not substitutable, not equally distributed, not easily captured, and highly variable over time in its availability. Addressing unmet water needs and the allocation of water across sectoral needs are the world's largest challenges." But Conca emphasized that transboundary water resource management can be a tool for attaining peace and post-conflict confidence building. "Such water cooperation initiatives include international river basin cooperation, stakeholder dialogues, and domestic water policy reforms."

Bringing together Foster's "Rethinking Security" and Conca's water resource discussion, Dabelko applied the concept to cases like the Nile Basin Initiative and Mesopotamian marshlands. "Using the logic of environmental interdependence, utilizing cooperative efforts and dialogue to manage resources, and overcoming political tensions through interaction and confidence building, are all environmental pathways to peace," Dabelko pointed out. "Along the conflict continuum, the environment can be used as a conflict prevention tool, a lifeline during conflict, an ingredient in peace agreements, and as a post-conflict trust builder."

Attendees discussed issues raised by the presentations, including human security versus state security, the definition of environmental security, and the proper management of information. One participant asked, "Why isn't the environment a current political issue?" Another noted that "human security and state security are in conflict. There is a human rights approach versus a state risk approach." Managing definitions and information is key to increasing the role of the environment in security dialogue: "Defining what security means is important. If it is not clear, then it doesn't work." Another participant agreed: "Misinformation or disinformation hinders the profession from making good decisions."

Drafted by Zachariah Zanek.


  • Hilary French

  • Ken Conca

    Professor of International Affairs, American University
  • Greg Foster

    Col. (Ret.), Industrial College of the Armed Forces
  • Geoffrey D. Dabelko

    Senior Advisor, ECSP; Former Director, ECSP
    Professor and Associate Dean, George V. Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, Ohio University