Mapping the environment to improve security

Envsec (Environment and Security) is an initiative of three organisations – the United Nations Environment Programme unep), the United Nations Development Programme (undp), and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (osce). So far activities have taken place in Southeastern Europe (Belgrade, December 2002), Central Asia (Ashgabad, January 2003) and in the Caucasus (Tbilisi, November 2003). By Stephen Lonergan.

The objective of the initiative is to identify more clearly the linkages between environment and security, and also to help highlight the regions where a combination of these two issues (for example conflict over shared resources) poses a potentially worrying situation, needing attention and action. We are particularly interested in detecting geographical concentrations of industrial and mining activities potentially hazardous both for human health and environment. We feel that there is a need to use visualisation tools such as maps, charts or graphs to complement analyses provided by other scientific instruments. These can also be of help to better understand the geographical context and interconnectivity, and ultimately help societies to deal with priority issues. The project also encourages building capacities in countries to detect early indications of potential conflict and to integrate environmental management into conflict prevention and peace-building policies and activities.

What do we mean by security?
Human security means a life in peace, without tension and conflict – either social, political, or economic – between people and nations. It encompasses freedom from a range of risks: disasters, hunger, diseases, civil strife or war, terrorism, eviction, persecution or discrimination, financial deprivation and poverty, and more.

Why link environment and security?
Protection of the environment is good for security. Working together on solving environmental problems is often the simplest way to longer-term, more systematic and fundamental cooperation. Where conflicts occur, environmental cooperation may pave the way to broader solutions. Proactive environmental management also helps reduce vulnerability to natural disasters, disease outbreaks, climate change, and food shortages.

Conversely, environmental degradation can be bad for security. For example, damage to health or assets from pollution can lead to instability. Usually the environment is not a single or the major source of a problem but can in some cases be important enough to worsen the situation. And conflicts are bad for the environment; physical damage and pollution caused by explosives, clearance of vegetation, fires, disruption of waste management infrastructure and services, and resettlement of large populations fleeing the conflict areas are some of the common impacts of conflict

By looking at the environmental dimensions of conflict issues we try to foresee how some of the consequences can be avoided (a “conflict prevention assessment”).

Key components are:

  • Assessing the situation: e.g. consultative mapping of the environment-security landscape in the Southern Caucasus.
  • Supporting cooperation: e.g. encouraging dialogue between Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to prevent environmental accidents in the Ferghana valley.
  • Promoting environmental management: e.g. combating illegal trade in hazardous waste and chemicals.
  • Strengthening access to information and public participation in decision-making: e.g. building capacity among environmental journalists and raising awareness of the environment-security linkages.

How are the linkages assessed and reported?
The initiative has been implemented in two phases; Phase 1 is a scoping exercise in consultation with the environmental experts from the Ministries of the Environment, representatives of ngos and security organisations in the country or region. The objective is to map out areas of concern (“hotspots”), where the people and the environment are severely endangered and where a potential environment and security risk exists. Phase 2 is a more in-depth assessment (research) of selected hotspots involving work at a larger scale and investigations “in the field” with a strong involvement of both governmental and non-governmental local partners. Phase 2 focuses in particular on transboundary areas identified as areas of concern.

The maps here, resulting from consultations in the Caucasus region, illustrate our approach. The figures reflect the inputs of the national experts/participants. They were asked to share their knowledge on environmental and security issues in the Caucasus and locate these approximately on base maps (only coastline, borders, main rivers and cities were represented) provided by the facilitators. The facilitators asked each individual participant to draw two maps by hand (one of their own country, and one of the region). They were to represent their perception of important environmental and security issues on each map. They could use any means for drawing the maps, as long as they provided a clear legend explaining corresponding symbols they used. When this task was completed, the maps of each participant were shared, and a composite image emerged, showing both localised hazards and widespread risks. The session concluded with the elaboration of a final regional map where the participants helped the facilitators, to aggregate, order, sort, and find a typology between all the issues put on the whiteboard during the “national” approach. The main idea was to pinpoint major transboundary problems deserving immediate attention, and which could become a case for bilateral or multilateral co-operation.

The maps produced as a result of this exercise depict the perception that participants have about the location of the “hot issues” in their geographical environment. In this respect, this category of maps can be considered to be somewhere between “mental maps” and “communication maps”, simplified to make problems better understood by an audience of non-specialists. As such, the elements appearing on the maps relate to empirical knowledge and perceived risks; they are not necessarily based on scientific study or accurately geo-referenced. Participants may exaggerate the importance of certain phenomena, underestimate the importance of others, misplace elements, lack knowledge of specific issues or even opportunely “forget” to represent some sensitive issues. Therefore a post-consultation detailed investigation is needed. The draft maps are considered as preliminary working documents to be complemented with elements extracted from a compiled documentation selected from relevant reference literature (assessments, SoEs, various reports issued by governmental and non-governmental international organisations, national action plans). Maps have to be “fact-checked” against these references to eliminate major uncertainties in the final presentation of an ad hoc image.

The secretariat for the joint initiative is located at unep’s Regional Office for Europe in Geneva, and closely collaborates with unep’s grid system, Adelphi Research, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development. For further information contact: Nickolai Denisov, United Nations Environment Programme, Regional Office for Europe, Geneva; Tel: +41 22 917 8281;

Environment, Peace and Security

This past fall, at the opening of the General Assembly, the Secretary General of the un explicitly linked the Millennium Development Goals to the three key principles of the un: International Peace and Security; Development; and Human Rights and Democracy. In his speech, he talked about the crucial need to address “soft threats” to security in a more systematic way. Environmental degradation, resource scarcity and resource abundance are all accepted as contributing to conflict in certain circumstances and, in different contexts, promoting cooperation. It is now being accepted that environmental services and resource availability are necessary conditions for sustainable livelihood security in communities, countries, regions and the world.The key challenge we now face is to undertake systematic and scientific assessments on the nature of this relationship among environment, resources and peace/security, for use in policy planning and implementation. Environmental priorities will need to be set using new criteria. To date, many of the studies have been anecdotal or poorly designed. I view it as crucial that we adopt methodologies that are scientifically sound, politically credible, and involve experts and stakeholders from the regions under study. unep has launched a broader programme on Environment, Peace and Security to address these issues on a global scale. In SouthEastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, the envsec initiative (see above), a partnership between osce, undp and unep has already begun to work on the ground.

Stephen Lonergan Director, unep Division of Early Warning and Assessment

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