Press releases

Thursday 24 Jun 1999

Statement by Mr. Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director UNEP, at the Oxford University European Affairs Society

London, U.K., 15 June 1999 - When Walter Jetz, the President-Elect of the Oxford European Affairs Society, invited me to address the society I accepted the invitation with some enthusiasm. Friends informed me that it is very much an intellectual compliment to be invited by this society. The European Affairs Society has become known as an impartial forum for discussions on issues facing Europe.

* Knowledge does not come from brain-power alone. It grows from observing, listening, analyzing and thinking. And in this fine art, this society has few equals. It is precisely to participate in this exciting process of discussion and analysis, to offer you a few ideas for thought, and to pick your brains in any way I can, that I have come to Oxford from Nairobi.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

* I intend to focus my remarks today on the linkages between the ecological crises and political conflicts.

* The great economic and social issues of our time are intimately linked with the quest for political stability. But a more significant long-term development of the past few years has been the intensification of the debate concerning the impact of the current ecological crises on the political stability of nations, and regions and even within societies.

* It must be realized that environmental degradation and its impact on human survival is nothing new. In fact, the rise and fall of many ancient societies can be traced to their ability to modify their immediate environment and also to their failure to prevent escalating environmental degradation.

* Today, people around the world, particularly in the developing world are struggling to survive in the face of growing deserts, dwindling forests, declining fisheries, poisoned food, water, air and climatic extremes and weather events that continue to intensify - floods, droughts and hurricanes.

* The question that must be asked is whether the scarcity of renewable resources - such as cropland, forest, freshwater and fisheries - could precipitate violent civil or international conflicts? * There are clear signs that environmental scarcities could contribute to violent conflicts in many parts of the world.

* In the coming decades, accelerating environmental pressures could transform the very foundations of the international political system.

* Typically, when people are faced with a severely degraded environment, the behavioural strategy of choice is migration.

* There are at least 25 million environmental refugees today, a total to be compared with 22 million refugees of traditional kind. They are mainly located in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian sub-continent, China, Mexico and Central America.

* The total may well double by the year 2010, as increasing numbers of impoverished people press ever harder on their already degraded environments.

* Let us take the availability of water first. Supplies of fresh water are finite. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, there were less than a billion people in the world, sharing less than a million cubic kilometres of fresh water.

* In 1900, there were about 2 billion people sharing the same amount. Now there are more than 6 billion people and the fresh water supply has remained constant.

* The populations of water-short countries today, estimated to be 550 million, are expected to increase to one billion by the year 2010. Water shortages will be specially adverse for agriculture in general and irrigation agriculture in particular.

* There is now no longer an unlimited supply of fresh water.

* International competition for this scarce resource is growing.

* As the demand grows and in the absence of clear consensus on how best to use shared water resources for the benefit of all, that competition has the potential of erupting into acrimonious disputes.

* The Nile River Basin is a classic example of increasing demand for water and the need for countries to come together to manage the shared water resources for the benefit of all basin States. Jordan river basin and Lake Chad basin are other examples.

* For example, nearly 47 per cent of the land area of the world excluding Antarctica falls within international water basins that are shared by two or more countries. There are 44 countries with at least 80 per cent of their total areas within international basins. The number of rivers and lake basins shared by two or more countries is now more than 300. In Africa alone, there are 54 drainage basins that cover approximately 50 per cent of the total land area of the continent.

* An even greater threat to future human welfare is that exacted by the undermining of the productivity of the land through accelerated soil erosion, increased flooding and declining soil fertility.

* The rate at which arable land is being lost is increasing and is currently 30-35 times the historical rate. Only about one and a half billion hectares remain out of the original three and a half billion. The loss of potential productivity due to soil erosion world wide is estimated to be equivalent to some 20 million tons of grain per year or 1% of global production. And this is happening worldwide, not just in Africa or Asia.

* The example of the wasting away of the Great Plains heartland of North America wasted away into the Dust Bowl in the 1930s was this century's more dramatic environmental debacles. The whole eastern coast of the United States was covered with a heavy fog - a fog composed of 350 million tonnes of rich top soil swept up from the Great Plains, half a continent away. Cattle were dying on the parched rangelands and thousands of farm families found themselves broke and able to fight starvation only by signing on for government make-work programmes. Others gave up. Many of these refugees made the westward trek, so well chronicled by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

* The tragedy of the Dust Bowl has been repeated in the sub-Saharan Africa in the '60s and '70s and has been replicating itself many times over globally.

* Clearly, the undermining of the livelihood of an already impoverished land- dependent people is desertification's most obvious consequence and its close linkage with poverty its most visible illustration.

* The growing number of people affected by desertification - estimated to be one billion - are not simply waiting to be touched by the magic wand of development. They are literally "losing ground", as their lands suffer more and more from the effects of this disease.

* The continuous decline of global biological diversity and the traditional habitats of indigenous and traditional people also has an impact on intensifying conflicts between and within societies.

* Most of the areas of mega-biodiversity are inhabited by indigenous and traditional people. They provide an inextricable link between cultural and biological diversity.

* Today, we are in the process of profoundly remaking international trade and markets. Globalization and international trade have become almost an ideology, promising a radiant future for us all. But is there a dark side? Have we looked at other impacts? For example, is globalization destroying subsistence agriculture? Are we co- opting Third World farmers into production for the international marketplace, while their societies are made dependent on imported food?

* Nearly 2,500 languages are in immediate danger of extinction and "even a higher number are losing the "ecological contexts" that keep them vibrant as languages".

* Cultural diversity is more than skin colour or physical characteristics. It is more than language, song and dance. It is the embodiment of values, institutions and patterns of behaviour. It is a composite whole representing a people's historical experience, aspirations and world view. Deprive a people of their language, culture and spiritual values, and you deprive them of their sense of direction and purpose.

* Political conflicts occur when political and economic institutions and processes wrest control over traditionally held resources without negotiations or compensation. Conflicts could occur when political and economic institutions and processes degrade environmental settings, place individuals and populations at risk, and rationalize selective exposure on the basis of national security, national energy and national debt.

* Political conflicts occur because people find themselves forcibly relocated while governments and industry build dams, expand export-oriented industries, develop international tourist facilities and set aside the biocommons for development.

* The example of the forest fires in the East Kalimantan province of Indonesia are another example of an ecological crises with long-term implications for global and regional security.

* It is a tragedy that is now affecting the region with potentially grave, long-term ecological, political, economic and health consequences.

* The effects of the Indonesian forest fires were felt far beyond its borders. It is still too early to calculate the full costs of these fires. But a rich source of biodiversity was wiped out forever and vast quantities of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere. Indonesia is home to more than 100 threatened animal species including the highest number of threatened mammals and the second highest number of threatened birds in the world. These fires may well have pushed the rare species of the Indonesian and Malayan orang-utan populations to extinction. The region is also notable for its wide variety of plant life. 500 tree species were considered under threat of extinction even before the current tragedy.

* This environmental crisis will no doubt put additional strains on the regional economy which is still reeling from a flight of confidence. The manufacturing sector, especially industries such as electronics and semi-conductors - considered the engine of growth in the entire region were seriously affected. Tourism was hit hard as vacationers canceled their travel plans. One estimate put the lost business to the Malaysian national airline alone at $2 billion.

* But the most important issue is the health risk posed to 70 million citizens. Health experts have warned that up to 20 per cent of all deaths in the region could be caused by the smog. Smoke was also to blame for the shipping and plane crashes that killed up to 300 people in the region.

* What was at stake was not only the health and economic vigour of the entire region but also its environmental and political stability.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

* The half decade since the demise of the Cold War has been characterized by numerous attempts at redefining the notion of security.

* The classical conception of security in world politics is rooted in Walter Lippmann's famous contention that security is about the possession by a state of a level of military capability sufficient to avert the danger of having to sacrifice core values, if it wishes to avoid war, and is able, if challenged, to maintain them by victory in such a war.

* This traditional conception of security is now being challenged by the emergence of new issues. As military threats have subsided or disappeared, other threats, especially environmental ones, have emerged with greater clarity. It is thus possible to argue that environmental care is an essential component of national or international security. Armed force is impotent in the face of ecological breakdown. It is relentless ecological degradation, rather than any external enemy, which poses the gravest threat to international and national security today.

* The global system that was viewed as a balance of power can now be seen as more of a spider web of highly interdependent states with finite resources. Any negative impact in one part of the web undermines the viability of the whole.

* Clearly, any aspect which threatens the survival of the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants should be treated as a security threat. Ultimately, international security has to rest on the elimination of the real scourges of humankind - hunger, disease, illiteracy, poverty and deterioration of the earth's life systems.


* The global community must improve its ability to identify emerging environmental problems and assess alternative responses. Formulating effective global, regional and national policies on matters vital to our future requires the ability, the foresight capability to make accurate, long term projections of global trends and their interactions in areas such as population, natural resources, environmental quality and other factors of geopolitical significance. It also requires a structure to link the results of such projections directly to current decision-making.

* Foresight is not prediction. It is not central planning. And it is not a surrender to computer models. Rather it is a process for bringing better information into the decision- making process, for linking analysis and decision, and for obtaining the best available description of the potential implications of policy choices. Foresight capability is a means for giving substance to the ecologist insight that "everything is connected". Foresight is the capability to effectively assess and monitor the long-term changes in the environment. It will also give us the ability to identify environmental hot spots with the potential of breaking into violent conflicts.

* Environmental security can also be improved by reducing the distance between the decision makers and the people who are supposed to benefit from their decisions. The challenge before the global community is to design enabling mechanisms to increase people's participation in development. And it has to maintain an effective two-way information link between the national governments, international agencies and local communities and to ensure that the benefits of sustainable development reaches the marginalized, the politically invisible masses.

Thursday 24 Jun 1999
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