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Sustainability: A Security Imperative

Klaus Toepfer launches the new publication, Understanding Environment, Conflict, and Cooperation, produced by UNEP and ECSP. The report goes beyond the headlines to find fertile ground for peace in environmental cooperation.

Date & Time

Oct. 6, 2004
12:00am – 12:00am

Sustainability: A Security Imperative

How can environmental reconstruction in post-conflict zones contribute to an enduring peace? What are the impending environment and security challenges in "hotspots" such as Central Asia and the Caucasus? In what manner is the international academic community contributing to our understanding of the mechanisms behind environmental cooperation? These three topics constitute the pillars of the United Nations Environment Programme's environment and security work, according to Klaus Toepfer, under-secretary general of the United Nations and executive director of UNEP.

Addressing "Sustainability: A Security Imperative" for an overflow Wilson Center audience on 6 October 2004, Klaus Toepfer launched the new publication Understanding Environment, Conflict, and Cooperation, produced by UNEP's Division of Early Warning and Assessment and the Woodrow Wilson Center's Environmental Change and Security Project. Dr. Toepfer praised the report's contribution to strengthening the scientific basis for UNEP's work on environment and conflict. The report goes beyond the headlines to find fertile ground for peace in environmental cooperation, but cautions that a lack of data and incomplete understanding of the linkages between environment, conflict, and cooperation still hamper progress towards transforming environmental risks into opportunities for cooperation.

Quoting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Dr. Toepfer highlighted the environmental component of the new international security dynamic: "The most immediate concern for most of our fellow human beings is with soft threats to their security, such as those posed by environmental problems…" He also directed attention to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's 2002 claim, before the Johannesburg World Summit, that "poverty, environmental degradation, and despair are destroyers of people, of societies, of nations." Acknowledging that a security framework is insufficient to address the environmental concerns of the global South, Dr. Toepfer stressed a complementary and constructive approach based on North-South cooperation through sustainable development. Evoking the constantly escalating and potentially volatile livelihood struggles in and around UNEP's headquarters in Kenya, Dr. Toepfer affirmed that "sustainable development is the precautionary aspect of peace policy."

The first—and most visible—of UNEP's "three pillars" of environment and conflict work is the Post-Conflict Assessment Unit, which was established to assess environmental conditions in post-conflict zones and identify damage arising from conflict and that which preceded hostilities. By producing detailed maps of environmental hotspots and distributing environmental safety information, UNEP provides local residents with a neutral picture of environmental conditions after conflict. The most recent and most ambitious of these projects focuses on Mesopotamian (Tigris/Euphrates) Marshlands in Iraq, home to Marsh Arabs persecuted under the regime of Saddam Hussein. Environmental projects in this trans-boundary watercourse are tentatively encouraging cooperation between Iraq and Iran, two nations with a history of conflict over navigation and water rights in the Shatt al Arab. To facilitate these efforts, UNEP is hosting face-to-face discussions and training local scientists to conduct environmental surveys in contaminated or degraded sites within Iraq.

Recounting similar post-conflict environmental assessments in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Liberia, Dr. Toepfer described UNEP's desire to advance the environmental components of conflict resolution and peacemaking. "What can we do to make this a contribution to peace?" he asked, stating that UNEP intends to "make the environment a path to peaceful development." Finally, he noted, "If you only stick to the borders, you cannot contribute to peace."

The second pillar of UNEP's environment, conflict, and cooperation work is represented by the Environment and Security Initiative (ENVSEC), UNEP European Regional Office's partnership with the United Nations Development Program and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. According to Gianluca Rampolla's article in Understanding Environment, Conflict, and Cooperation, this innovative collaboration focuses on two principal issues: "Environmental sources of stress between communities, regions, or countries; and tools and approaches that can be used to strengthen cooperation and good governance, address environmental problems, and avoid conflict." Dr. Toepfer described ENVSEC's assessments of the environmental threats in Central Asia and the Caucasus, such as nuclear contamination from former Soviet installations, debilitated water management structures, elevated soil salinity, and advancing desertification.

ENVSEC is utilizing its diverse expertise and multiple capacities to identify hotspots where the preconditions for conflict may be especially acute. The ENVSEC partners hope to create an early warning system that may give policymakers the opportunity to address tensions before they escalate into conflict. Dr. Toepfer urged, "Preventive action should be initiated at the earliest possible stage of conflict cycle in order to be most effective." He highlighted the myriad opportunities for cooperative endeavors in environmental recuperation, especially surrounding the Aral Sea and its feeder rivers.

In the final segment of his presentation, Dr. Toepfer contended that the analytical and theoretical foundations of environmental cooperation must be strengthened, in order to go beyond common knowledge and "newspaper language." To this end, UNEP DEWA, under the leadership of Steve Lonergan, has launched an Environment and Conflict Prevention Initiative, with a special focus on the Great Lakes region of Africa. Dr. Toepfer acknowledged the contributions to this effort from DEWA's collaborators on its Understanding Environment, Conflict, and Cooperation report, including Geoffrey Dabelko of the Environmental Change and Security Project, along with other scholars such as Alexander López of the Universidad National de Costa Rica and Alexander Carius of Adelphi Research in Germany. Dr. Toepfer praised the academic community for debunking the "water war" myth by determining that freshwater agreements have stimulated cooperation and negotiation, as described in Aaron Wolf's Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements. Yet the field is still under-theorized, and many possibly revealing case studies on the subnational level have been overlooked. With this in mind, Dr. Toepfer encouraged the research community to continue to identify risk factors for environmental conflict and best practices for environmental cooperation, and provide the basis to support UNEP's other pillars.

In conclusion, Dr. Toepfer returned to Kofi Annan's observation that so-called "soft" threats can be more pressing concerns than traditional security threats. Therefore, UNEP's work "is not isolated work, but it is integrated more and more into the overall activity of the UN family, and we try to maximize its synergetic effects." Dr. Toepfer came to what he called "the leading institute in environmental security in the U.S." to bring this message to the U.S. policy community: sustainable development is a disarmament policy for the future.


Klaus Toepfer

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Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more


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