The United Nations (UN) considers the preservation of the environment a vital part of conflict prevention and peacekeeping.
Sustainably managed resources are recognized to significantly reduce the risk of humanitarian disaster during armed conflict and, in some cases, can even reduce the conflicts themselves, especially in cases of geopolitical tensions. There are several partnerships in place between the UN, the European Union and other global entities to prevent conflict over natural resources from arising. However, considerably more work is required.
To gain global attention, 6 November has been declared International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of The Environment in War and Armed Conflict.
The preservation of the environment is critical for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation), SDG 7 (Affordable and Clean Energy) and SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities).
Over the last 60 years, at least 40 per cent of all internal conflict has been linked to the exploitation of natural resources, such as timber, diamonds, gold, oil or fertile land and water. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that conflicts involving natural resources are twice as likely to re-ignite.
Current events highlight the links between war and the exploitation of natural resources. The Palestinian humanitarian crisis, where 2.2 million people are cut off from water, electricity and food, shines light on how the possession and control of natural resources can be weaponized by withholding basic human needs.
Creating environmental crises and disasters during war is often one of the least-publicized ways that militaries work to gain an advantage over territories and those residing in them.
A UNEP report on environment and security states,
“…military conflicts and wars do not respect environmental limitations or imperatives. UNEP’s post-conflict assessment work has demonstrated that after a war, a costly and much-needed process of restoring the environment is needed”.
The conquest of water that Israel has maintained over the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967 is an example of how the exploitation of natural resources during war affects civilian communities and undermines their hope for survival.
For over 50 years, Israel has held complete control over the water supply for the West Bank and Gaza, denying Palestinians access to water from the Jordan River. Palestinians have been struggling to sustain themselves ever since the military occupation of the area began.
The combination of intensifying Israeli airstrikes and the complete blockade of humanitarian aid imposed on the region has resulted in Gaza having access to no more than six litres of water per person per day, according to recent UNICEF data.
A reported 55 per cent of Gaza’s water infrastructure has been overwhelmed and needs repair, while one desalination plant is operating at just five per cent capacity. The other two plants are unable to function due to a lack of sufficient daily fuel and electricity.
All six wastewater plants in the area are non-functional due to a lack of fuel and electricity and are now dumping 130,000 cubic metres of wastewater into the Mediterranean daily.
There is documented evidence that within the last decade, Palestinians have not had access to adequate amounts of clean drinking water.
A 2017 report by Amnesty International cites the World Health Organization (WHO) as stating that the average Palestinian consumes around 73 litres of water per day, which is less than the recommended daily minimum of 100 litres. There are also rural populations of thousands of Palestinians where per-capita water consumption stands at a mere 20 litres of water per day.
Roughly 180 rural Palestinian communities are entirely without running water in parts of the West Bank, yet they are denied the right to drill water wells or install pumps. Amnesty International also states that most water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption.
A 2022 report from the Palestinian Central Bureau for Statistics found that 97 per cent of the water pumped from the coastal aquifer in Gaza did not meet WHO standards. This is unacceptable because access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a basic human right.
On a global scale, 2.2 billion people still lack access to clean water and basic hygiene, according to the SDG 6 progress report.
Apart from the tactic of weaponizing hunger and thirst to destabilize communities during war, climate change is another under-considered factor that influences armed conflict. The link between climate change and conflict is undeniable—the former can impact peace and security. It has been observed that the countries most vulnerable to climate change tend to also be the most vulnerable to armed conflict.
While climate change does not directly cause conflict, it does increase risk factors like competition over natural resources, which drive up food prices and increase geopolitical tensions, states Thomas Ritzer, Political Affairs Officer at the Policy and Mediation Division in the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA).
According to UNESCO, rising sea levels, fish and food insecurity, migration, and water weaponization are some key themes to look for in the coming years as they are linked to how a changing geopolitical landscape can affect economies and escalate simmering geopolitical tensions.
Climate change is also displacing communities and destroying their livelihoods, posing the risk of becoming a significant factor in future humanitarian crises.
Wildfires in Australia, cyclones in the Indian Ocean, rising sea levels in the Pacific, and droughts in South Asia are all examples of major environmental catastrophes that are happening now and that pose a risk to the future livelihoods of the communities they hit.
Some proposed action strategies involving UNEP and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) include the Climate Security Mechanism to advance research, conduct risk assessments, and support colleagues around the world in developing solutions like climate-informed mediation and conflict-sensitive adaptation.
There is an urgent need to take action to end the exploitation of natural resources during times of war and political turmoil. Increasing awareness of the core issues is just the beginning.
Edited by Angel Xing and Ali Shahrukh Pracha