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Poverty Times #1

In the ashes of conflict

The effects of war can be greater than loss of life and destruction of property. Wars can affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil our agriculture depends on and the biodiversity that sustains us. These environmental impacts are felt particularly by the poor, especially poor women in rural areas, many of whom are the sole provider for families with the loss of adult male members from the conflicts. By David Jensen and Peter Zahler

Unless the environmental damage of conflict is acknowledged and remedied, human health, welfare and sustainable economic development will be threatened long after peace agreements are signed. The political and social stability of a post-conflict country can be undermined in the long term if the links between poverty, sustainable resource
management and the equitable allocation of resources are not taken into account during the recovery process. Recent experiences from Yugoslavia and Afghanistan have shown that conflict can affect the environment in a number of ways in both the short and long term.The poor are particularly affected due to their greater reliance on environmental services, lack of access to information and inability to move from impacted sites or purchase non-contaminated goods.

During the 1999 Kosovo conflict, images of blazing refineries, toxic chemicals leaking into the Danube River, and bomb craters in protected areas began to compete with those of thousands of refugees fleeing their homes to escape the crisis. Neighbouring countries in the Balkans also began to fear the effects of transboundary air- and waterborne pollution. While some people could move away from the sites, or buy safe food and water, impoverished people had no such option. And they lacked the resources to call national attention to the issues. Assistance was eventually provided by UNEP by raising US$ 11.2 million for clean-up operations.

While Yugoslavia faced immediate health threats from bombed industrial sites, Afghanistan faces a legacy of environmental neglect, over-exploitation and an almost total lack of natural resource management due to thirty years of conflict. Loss of forests reduces the availability of a range of products. Deforestation also increases soil erosion and affects the availability of groundwater. Lack of sanitation and waste management is polluting water resources and causing serious epidemics and deaths. Overgrazing, soil and water mismanagement and drought are crippling the productivity of agricultural areas and undermining the ability of the country to feed itself. As Afghanistan is a country where nearly 80 percent of the population depend on the environment for their daily survival, assistance is urgently needed to address these problems. Failure to do so will exacerbate the extreme poverty faced by the Afghan people. This is especially true for the two million refugees that are expected to return in 2002, who will rely on managed sustainability to meet their immediate and longterm needs. Experience gained from Yugoslavia and Afghanistan shows that post-conflict countries share one predominant characteristic: there are strong and
critically important links between environmental damage, human health and sustainable development. These links must be made clear to the international community, central and regional government bodies and local communities so that the environment will be firmly placed on the recovery agenda and integrated into the reconstruction process.

Failure to do so will undermine sustainable development in the long term, create disputes over diminished resource bases and lead to greater poverty and instability – the prerequisites for further conflict.

David Jensen and Peter Zahler
UNEP Post-Conflict Assessment Unit