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Future Shock: How Environmental Change and Human Impact Are Changing the Global Map

Four expert speakers examine the security threats posed by global phenomena including migration, demographic change, water scarcity, and environmental degradation, seeking to shed light on the causes of certain conflicts and help governments prevent domestic and regional upheaval.

Date & Time

Mar. 4, 2008
9:00am – 10:30am ET


The complex linkages between environmental degradation, health, and migration are "entangled vulnerabilities," said Pell Center Director Peter Liotta at "Future Shock: How Environmental Change and Human Impact Are Changing the Global Map," an event sponsored by the Pell Center in collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) and the Embassy of Liechtenstein on March 4, 2008. Four expert speakers examined the security threats posed by global phenomena including migration, demographic change, water scarcity, and environmental degradation, seeking to shed light on the causes of certain conflicts and help governments prevent domestic and regional upheaval.

Migration and Population Growth: Transforming the Global Map

Liotta explained that population growth, migration, and urbanization are straining the ability of many governments—not to mention ecosystems—to provide people with basic services. During the last half century, the world experienced the largest population boom in history, with the majority of this growth occurring in cities in developing nations. "We are entering the urban century," asserted Liotta. In 1905, 10 percent of the world's population lived in cities; by 2030, nearly two-thirds of the global population will be city-dwellers.

Developing-country cities often lack the infrastructure, strategic planning, and funds needed to accommodate these population booms. By 2015, Liotta pointed out, the population of Lagos, Nigeria, is projected to top 24 million, 11 times what it was in 1970. The government's inability to effectively respond to the population increase has contributed to rampant crime, the rapid expansion of slums, and an acute lack of medical facilities.

Water Management as Conflict Management

Water quality and quantity are declining in many parts of the world, posing acute problems for communities and governments. This crisis, along with high levels of interdependence on shared water resources, has led many members of the news media and some politicians to warn of imminent "water wars" between countries. Yet such wars between nations over water have never occurred in modern history and are unlikely to take place in the future, argued ECSP Director Geoffrey D. Dabelko. Although tensions over water resources often lead countries to trade hostile words, such exchanges rarely escalate into full-fledged conflicts.

In depicting water as a likely cause of violence, the media and politicians ignore the opportunities for collaboration that shared management of water resources may provide. Water can help build trust and cooperation between formerly adversarial nations; it also serves as a tool for continuing dialogue between rivals in times of tension or outright conflict. For instance, Israeli and Jordanian water managers met to jointly manage the Jordan River even when no official diplomatic relations existed between the two countries.

Although countries do not go to war with one another over water, water does cause considerable conflict between users within nations. The same water supply must meet agricultural, industrial, and household demands, which can lead to tensions and even violence between competing users. Additional examples of intrastate conflict include:

  • Desertification—caused by natural variations in rainfall, unsustainable land use practices, and climate change—is one of several causes of the ongoing conflict in Darfur. Rainfall in northern Darfur has dropped by more than 30 percent over the past 50 years, exacerbating tensions between farmers (who need the water to irrigate their crops) and pastoralists (who need it for their livestock).
  • The construction of large dams, which can force thousands of people to move, is often met with vigorous resistance by the displaced communities.
  • The privatization of water supply has sometimes provoked large-scale, politically destabilizing protests, such as in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000.

Although these water conflicts only rarely involve organized violence or lethal force, the struggle for water is a life-and-death battle for the 1.1 billion people without access to clean drinking water and the 2.6 billion without access to adequate sanitation, said Dabelko. He urged practitioners and policymakers to find ways to capture the benefits of interstate cooperation over water while mitigating the significant levels of intrastate conflict.

Environment, Poverty, and Insecurity in Africa

In a continent where between 80 and 90 percent of people depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, "environmental resources are the very essence of development," said UNEP's David Smith. Overgrazing, deforestation, water pollution, excessive irrigation, and overfishing all reduce the environment's ability to support people. For example, poor water quality reduces crop yields, a particularly dangerous phenomenon in Africa, where agriculture is the single largest component of the economy. In addition, waterborne diseases kill more than 2 million people in developing countries every year—and sicken millions more. Death and disease can reduce a family's income and its crop yields, thus further increasing hunger.

Smith explained that developing countries' environmental ministries tend to have less authority than other ministries, and are unable to make real changes without their support. Consequently, for real environmental progress to be made, a nation's other ministries—particularly the ministries of finance and agriculture—must be convinced of the environment's centrality to domestic and regional stability and prosperity.

Environmental Security and the Military

Kent Butts of the U.S. Army War College argued that the U.S. military and developing-country militaries could play a positive role in tackling environmental issues around the world, even though the relationship between environmentalists and military leaders is an uneasy one. Traditionally suspicious of the military's motives and unhappy with its poor environmental record, environmentalists have been reluctant to involve the armed forces in environmental security initiatives. "Soft" security issues do not resonate as well with the military as "hard" security issues, and military leaders have been wary of diluting the armed forces' mission with too many non-combat initiatives. Yet Butts believes that the military is too powerful for environmentalists and policymakers to afford to ignore its capacity to increase environmental security.

Developing nations often have large militaries that are relatively well-equipped to deal with serious environmental issues, said Butts, whereas their ministries of environment usually lack resources and influence. "You can have the military out there monitoring diseases as they come across, not just the transmission of contraband," he suggested. "They could be telling you when you have water issues that need to be addressed."

Butts urged leaders in government, the military, and the environmental community to capitalize on the positive links between the environment and security. "If we recognize environmental issues as a factor in regional stability, we can use them to build confidence and communication between countries that may already be struggling," he said. "Or we can leave these issues untended until they become issues in elements of conflict such as we have seen in Kenya." Addressing environmental degradation as a major variable in ongoing regional instability and conflict offers a "new option for U.S. preventative diplomacy and engagement strategies," he said—one that should not be ignored, even if the actors may make strange bedfellows.

Darfted by Liat Racin and edited by Rachel Weisshaar and Meaghan Parker.


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