The world is changing demographically, economically, politically and environmentally. The acquisition of natural resources, such as water, can be viewed as a threat to the international security. Severe environmental degradation can deepen regional divisions and trigger social conflicts for communities that depend on these resources for their livelihoods and fulfillment of basic needs. Moreover, the environment itself can be dramatically affected by such conflicts.
The unprecedented demand for natural resources is fuelling ethnic conflicts, causing large-scale displacement and is a severe threat to the lands, livelihoods and the way of life of indigenous people. Infact, many of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa and Asia in recent years have been fuelled by profits from the exploitation of natural resources, including diamonds, timber and minerals. Indigenous communities ranging from the Batwa of Central Africa to hill tribes in northern Thailand, Bedouin in the Middle East and Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province face a grave risk of being forced from their land and resources by activities taking place in the name of industrial development.
Locally, tensions over non-extractive natural resources that have an impact on livelihoods can also drive conflicts. Tension can result from the decline of limited sources and inequitable distribution and utilization within a given context; this may spill over into wider instability and violence. In the case of Darfur, one of the reasons that led to violence is competition between herders and farmers over land; historical ethnic divisions compounded this conflict.
A New Approach to Stability
Recognizing the linkages between the environment and insecurity, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for integrating environmental initiatives to solve conflict and instability into the U.N.’s conflict prevention policy. So, if environmental degradation can trigger conflict and violence, then environmental cooperation initiatives can be used as stability-sustaining tools. This can create a dialogue between parties in conflict. Environmental challenges, such as industrial pollution, are global issues that ignore political boundaries. These challenges require a long-term perspective to achieve sustainable management, encourage local and nongovernmental participation, and extend community building beyond the polarization of economic linkages. Furthermore, environment cooperation can build bridges across boundaries and between people, and enhance building a more sustainable peace and stability.
Environmental cooperation can be initial building blocks for increasing confidence and enhancing trust between communities, hence, reducing uncertainties and mitigating tensions. Cooperative sharing of resources encourages common goals, and establishes recognized rights and expectations. Moreover, initiatives of cooperation to manage environmental resources will promote peace between disputing parties and may establish sustained interaction and long-term relationships, encouraging stability. The more environmental initiatives exist, the more conflicts will be resolved in a non-violent manner. Environmental initiatives can be used to initiate dialogue between disputing parties even for non-ecological conflicts.
Shared water supply is an important domain for environmental conflict resolution. Sharing of water resources represents an opportunity to keep the dialogue alive between disputing parties such as in the Nile river case. Management of biodiversity conservation in disputed areas is a major aspect of environmental peace-building strategies. This may help to achieve win-win solutions between local communities. It is worthy to mention that NGOs can enhance the chances of sustainable peace by promoting awareness and motivation of local community participation. Therefore, their influence must be strengthened in policy decisions that are related to environmental security.
Environment and the Arab Spring
In the wake of historic Arab Spring, a new approach to sustainability is required in the Middle East. The Arab world offers a fertile ground and ample opportunities to prepare a sustainable mechanism for peace and regional security using environment as a tool. Traditional tools of conservation, such as Hima and Haram, produce a promising opportunity for environmental synergies in the region.
In order to protect land, forests and wildlife, Prophet Muhammad (Sallallahu Alaihi Wasallam) created inviolable zones in which resources were to be left untouched. Haram areas were drawn up around wells and water sources to protect the groundwater from overpumping. Hima applied to wildlife and forestry and designated an area of land where grazing and woodcutting was restricted, or where certain animal species (such as camels) were protected.
Adopting natural environmental initiatives, such as Hima and Haram, has multiple direct and indirect benefits for development in West Asia. It can enhance trust, build confidence, and reduce uncertainties in the Arab world, which may help in finding an amicable solution to multiple problems faced by this strategic region.