Briefing UN Security Council on humanitarian effects of environmental degradation on peace and security

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High-level open debate of the Security Council on the theme “Maintenance of international peace and security: humanitarian effects of environmental degradation and peace and security” took place on 17 September 2020.

View the recorded event on UN Web TV

Below is the statement by Ibrahim Thiaw, Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

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Allow me to thank the Council Presidency of Niger for extending an invitation to me as the Security Council discusses a very critical topic, namely: "Maintenance of International Peace and Security: The Humanitarian impact of environmental degradation and peace and security".

Today’s threats to international peace and security have shifted from conflicts between states to violence due to non-state actors. An assessment of the root causes of these conflicts shows that a large proportion have a link to the environment. Such link is either due to abundance of natural resources (oil, minerals, wildlife…), or to scarcity (land, water, vegetation…).

In arid lands, such as in the Africa’s Sahel region, violence often erupts over competition for access to depleted land and scarce water resources.

The combination of three factors exacerbate the situation: 

  • A heavy reliance on natural resources for the satisfaction of basic needs. Farmers, pastoralists or fishermen/women. City dwellers may have additional income, but they too are largely dependent on income generated in rural areas 
  • With land degradation, drought and climate change, resources are shrinking 
  • A steady population increase put more pressure on natural resources

Satisfying a growing demand of a population that relies essentially on resources that are being depleted at alarming rate makes the situation unpredictable in the long run. 
Compounded with weak governance, weak institutions, and limited capacities to respond to emergencies. 
Despite heroic efforts of the humanitarian community, lives are being saved but not being changed. Year after year, the vicious cycle spirals. We must dig more deeply in order to address the root causes. 

Conflicts over access to natural resources are not new. But the intensity and the frequency are unprecedented. Farmers and pastoralists fight for the control of scarcer fertile land and water. As the users of natural resources are from different tribes or religious groups, and in the absence of a strong judiciary system, there are cases of excessive violence, leading to cycles of dangerous retaliations. 

Droughts hit more frequently, more severely. Drought has always been a serious threat to lives and livelihoods. It is a phenomenon that is already affecting every climatic region - with around 70 countries are now regularly affected.  In the last three years alone, more than 25 countries declared a national emergency due to drought. 

Drought means water shortages, power outages, degraded health and stalled economic momentum. Droughts wipe out enough produce (annually) to feed 81 million people every day for the entire year. That is the equivalent of the population of Germany. 
Episodes of drought can double the risk of rioting in vulnerable communities. Food prices spike, civil unrest erupts, mostly triggered by vulnerable people living in suburbs of large cities.

Years of drought generally correspond to years of economic downturn for many countries whose economies essentially depend on the primary sector.  

I believe that there are four dimensions to consider when we address environment and security linkages: 

  1. First, ecosystem goods and services fundamentally underpin human well-being and human security. 
  2. Second, conflict, irrespective of its source, affects the viability or sustainability of investments in environmental protection and their outcomes. 
  3. Third, ecosystem degradation, resource competition, or inequitable distribution of benefits increase vulnerability and conflict risk. 
  4. Fourth, environmental cooperation can increase capacity for conflict management, prevention, and recovery.

The scope of security and insecurity is by no means limited to violent conflict or its absence but includes the roots of sustainable livelihoods, health, and well-being.
Different types of violence are associated with the increased rural-urban migration due to drought and desertification. For example, grievances against government might rise when agricultural outcomes are depressed by drought and its induced out-migration. 

In other cases, the unfulfilled economic hopes of poor migrants combined with youth street gangs, lead youth in spirals of violence.

Desperate and without much perspectives, young people may be easy prays to terrorist groups or to traffickers of all sorts. 
Frustrations and dissatisfaction due to inequitable sharing of state income (especially generated from extractives) lead to serious grievances, sometimes rebellions. 

The vast majority, of the world’s population relies on ecosystem services rooted in soils. In view of this, the health of land - due to its direct and indirect influences on the economy, degree of empowerment and on human rights - catalyzes the impact of environmental degradation on peace, security and stability.

Our capacities to assess and address the security risks driven by environmental degradation and climate change are not keeping pace with the speed with which the ‘risk landscape’ is changing.

So, how do we prevent environmental degradation and foster peace and security?

We need to understand how difficult it is to mobilize societies against a threat whose costly consequences may not be felt until it is too late to prevent them. 
Environmental security underpins the rationale for investment in global environmental benefits and is essential to maintain the earth's life-supporting ecosystems generating water, food, and clean air. Reducing environmental security risks also depends fundamentally on improving resource governance and social resilience to natural resource shocks and stresses.

Indeed, the positive angle of the central and fundamental link between humanity and land is that the pendulum may swing in both directions. Protecting lands could thus trigger a broad peace, stability and ecosystem recovery cycle; a constructive feedback loop extending far beyond an initial choice to protect the environment.

At the UN Convention to Combat Dersertification, most of our flagship programs tackle environment degradation as a means to promote peace and security. 

For example, the Initiative on Sustainability, Stability and Security, which aims at addressing the security challenges linked to land degradation and desertification. It aims at supporting African countries to create decent green jobs in land rehabilitation. Another important Initiative with a similar goal is the Great Green Wall. I am sure Inna Modja will speak more about the vision of the Initiative. 

These are just examples of actions, but the risks that climate and environmental change presents to international peace and security need to be addressed across the entire impact chain – by mitigating climate change, attenuating its consequences on ecosystems, adapting its socio-economic systems, better managing the heightened resource competition it will bring about, and strengthening conflict management institutions.

To prevent conflicts while protecting our planet, we ought to tackle environment degradation. Our environment is our health, our wealth and our well-being. If we, in a coordinated way, avoid, reduce, and reverse land degradation we can better preempt, prevent and manage many conflicts in the World. 

Thank you.