Resources & Climate
Commentary

Enhancing environmental security

in Program

Conflict and cooperation over shared environmental resources have characterized human societies from the dawn of civilization — from ancient Mesopotamia, where citizens’ obligations for the common use and proper maintenance of collective water works on the Tigris-Euphrates River were prescribed by law, to ancient Rome, where the Latin word rivalis, meaning “one who uses the same stream as another,” gave us the English term – rivals. Today, expanding populations, shifting consumption patterns, and growing energy use are imposing potentially unsustainable strains on Earth’s ecosystems.

Stimson began its work on these enduring governance challenges deriving from global environmental change in 2007 when we launched the pioneering project Regional Voices, supported by the National Intelligence Council. In conversations in diverse countries in the Indian Ocean region, we heard how developing countries are especially exposed to growing environmental threats, while often possessing limited resources and capacities to reduce or redress their vulnerabilities. The program illuminated important distinctions in how these policy communities conceive environmental security. Developed nations typically cast environmental security threats in terms of international stability; environmental pressures striking one state or region may spread risks to others. Water stress afflicting one area could kindle clashes with neighboring water-users. Refugees fleeing flooding or drought could spill over borders, straining local capacities and sparking civil strife. Third countries might be drawn in to furnish humanitarian relief or contain widening conflict. For many developing countries, though, environmental hazards and natural disasters imperil their own national security, even their national survival. Rather than reverberating from abroad, environmental risks directly endanger their societies at home, threatening loss of life, loss of livelihoods, loss of property, and loss of territory (to sea-level rise).   Significant security risks don’t just emanate from developing countries, they happen to developing countries.

Building on the foundations laid by Regional Voices, Stimson in 2010 established a dedicated Environmental Security Program. The program explores the dynamics of shared resource governance — focusing particularly on transboundary waters — and investigates new areas such as building green economies in the Arab transition countries and exploring maritime policy intersections between climate change, infrastructure development, and resources management in coastal zones and the oceans.

Here, too, Stimson’s studies strive to elucidate the complex, multi-faceted character of today’s environmental security challenges. Much public and policy apprehension arises from perceptions that declining availability of crucial resources could incite frictions among resource strapped consumer nations. Stimson’s work, however, makes clear that a good deal of the strain on the planet’s freshwater, for example, flows not from insufficient supplies but from ineffective management. Agriculture accounts for two-thirds of water use worldwide, yet in many countries half the water withdrawn for irrigation never reaches farmers’ crops, instead evaporating from wastefully flooded fields or seeping from unlined canals. By the same token, many current tensions — as well as future risks — stem not from struggles over resource scarcities but over resource policies. In the face of anticipated climate change, for instance, one country may opt to build a dam – to increase its water storage capacity against drought, provide water for irrigation, or generate renewable hydropower. But the decisions of dam operators upstream to retain water in the reservoir, divert water for crops, or release water to turn the turbines, can all impact the ability of downstream neighbors to control their own water supplies. One country’s efforts to ensure its water-food-energy security upriver may impinge upon other countries’ (perceived) security downriver.

Sustainably managing multiple and mounting demands on the world’s shared environment and natural resources will require cooperation to integrate competing uses and reconcile contending interests. The Environmental Security Program has made fostering that collaboration a core component of its mission. Bringing together policy analysts and practitioners, scientists and stakeholders from around the U.S. and across the developing world, Stimson has formed interdisciplinary working groups and international research projects to identify collective opportunities to tackle environmental challenges in the Muslim world, promote cooperative water management in the Middle East, and formulate a joint roadmap for data sharing, capacity building, and policy coordination in the Indus Basin, among other initiatives.  In 2014, we hosted younger generation science and public policy experts from India and Pakistan to spend a few weeks together at Stimson, generating some fresh ideas about water management for government officials in Delhi and Islamabad.    

From the outset, Stimson has sought to offer decision-makers pragmatic solutions and policy-relevant information and analysis. Stimson’s environmental security work has contributed to the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends reports, State Department public diplomacy efforts in South Asia, and the Intelligence Community Assessment of Global Water Security, and ongoing analyses of global food security.  In the same vein, Stimson is an active member of the U.S. Water Partnership, an association of more than 90 civil society organizations, private sector firms and foundations, and government agencies united to mobilize U.S. resources and expertise to promote sustainable water management. Our contribution to the partnership is a scoping study of civil society initiatives to help manage and resolve international water conflicts.

As Stimson moves into its next 25 years, the Environmental Security Program will remain committed to understanding and advancing opportunities for cooperative strategies and collective institutions to meet shared environmental challenges. On our planet of ineluctably interconnected societies, economies, and ecosystems, the nations of the world must come together to solve their common environmental problems or together they will face the consequences.

Follow Stimson Environmental Security program and Stimson on Twitter

Photo credit: Edgar Barany via Flickr

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