Can sustainability lead us into a more secure future?

Sensemaking / Can sustainability lead us into a more secure future?

Anna Simpson asks whether mounting pressure on key resources can drive collaboration across borders.

08 Aug 2011

Anna Simpson asks whether mounting pressure on key resources can drive collaboration across borders.

“Colonel Gaddafi may end up doing more for the planet than many a hardened climate activist.”

As revolutionary unrest swept across the Middle East claiming thousands of lives, this editorial claim in the Financial Times sounded, at worst, flippant – and at best, naïve. Out with the tyrant and in with the treehugger? Surely not. The point, of course, was that radical uncertainty about oil prices could prompt nations dependent on supplies from unstable sources to take a long hard look at their energy strategy.

It’s not a new idea. After the shockwaves of 9/11, which, lest we forget, was prompted above all by Muslim fundamentalist fury at the presence of heathen troops safeguarding America’s oil supply in the cradle of Islam, there was much talk of new beginnings. Tony Blair famously saw a kaleidoscope of opportunities, while George Bush sounded briefly like an eco-activist, warning of the consequences of America’s “addiction to oil”.

Optimists who hoped it would trigger a game-changing shift to sustainability have been confounded. But at the very least, 9/11 and its aftermath put ‘resource security’ right at the heart of geopolitics.

Of course, access to natural resources has always been both a cause of conflict and a weapon of war – arguably since the dawn of civilisation [see ‘Resource security: the long view’,]. In the last 40 years, we’ve seen civil unrest motivated by struggles over everything from natural gas (Indonesia) and charcoal (Somalia), to gems, gold and diamonds (Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Colombia and Sierra Leone) and coffee and cocoa (Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia). We’ve seen an ‘Arab Spring’ whose immediate trigger was the sudden surge in food prices.

blood diamondsAnd as John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, warns, we seem sure to see more of the same. Beddington envisages a ‘perfect storm’ of food shortages, water scarcity and uncertain access to key energy resources – not to mention a growing population – threatening to unleash violence and unrest [see Jonathon Porritt’s column in GF80].

But does resource scarcity have to be a call to arms? Can the urgent need to plan for the future of our supplies and our planet be a catalyst for collaboration – even, dare we hope, for peace?

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Alec Crawford, a researcher in climate change and security at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, sees the coming storm as an opportunity to bring authorities and local communities together for dialogue, technical cooperation and co-management of resources.

“The good thing about the environment”, says Crawford, “is that it provides a less political entry point for collaboration than many things.”

Initiatives to preserve ecosystems across political borders can go some way to establishing peaceful relations between rival communities. Take the Good Water Neighbours project. It was set up in 2001 by Friends of the Earth Middle East to raise awareness of shared water concerns between Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and promote collaboration on the ground [see box, ‘Wadi Fukin and the wells of peace’, below].

Another example is the Cordillera del Cóndor conservation zone, founded on disputed land between Ecuador and Peru. This mountainous stretch is particularly rich in biodiversity: its cloud forests are home to endangered species such as the long-haired spider monkey and the spot-winged parrotlet, and play an essential role in the regional water cycle. But the region also has important gold and copper reserves, whose extraction has sparked three major conflicts between the two countries since 1940, and been consistently opposed by the indigenous Shuar people. As part of the 1998 Brasilia Accord between Ecuador and Peru, a series of protected ‘peace parks’ were established, alongside proposals for coordinated irrigation, agriculture, tourism and mining initiatives.

Crawford is careful not to overestimate the ability of cooperation around a shared resource to lead to peace. “You can have collaboration and conflict at the same time”, he remarks. “Take the Indus River Treaty. It’s been in place for about 60 years now, and has somehow managed to survive despite the fact that India and Pakistan have been in conflict for much of that time.”

However in many regions, the challenge of providing food, energy and water for growing populations in a volatile climate simply can’t be met without collaboration. And so recognising our dependence on shared resources not only offers a potential road to peace: it is a necessary means of avoiding conflict.

As resource scarcity threatens more communities, industries and economies, a new approach to security will be needed. Concerns such as land and water management will increasingly be ‘elevated’ from environment to defence ministries. As Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute and author of World on the Edge, argues:

“We’ve inherited a definition where security is almost military by definition, because we came out of a century dominated by two world wars and a Cold War. But the threats to our security now are climate change, population growth, falling water tables, soil erosion, collapsing fisheries etc. And we can’t say that we don’t have the resources to save civilisation; we do. The question is how we use these resources.”

A diverse supply of key resources is an obvious way to keep the risk of sudden shortages to a minimum. The potential for renewable sources of energy in this respect is considerable. Why depend on an expensive resource from a hostile region, when a combination of wind, solar, biomass, marine and geothermal – all sourced closer to home – could fit the bill?

This was the thinking behind Mena Geothermal, a start-up company installing ground source heat pumps at hospitals and schools in the Palestinian territories. “The Ministry of Public Works estimates that we need 200,000 housing units in Palestine”, says founder Khaled Sabawi. “Well, how are they going to provide them with energy? How are these homes going to be heated and cooled? Right now the Palestinian economy imports 93% of its electricity from the Occupation.”

According to Sabawi, heating and cooling account for the majority of energy consumption on Palestinian territory, and so geothermal makes for both a promising business proposition and a smart security solution.

That’s not to say that renewable energy sources are risk-free when it comes to security of supply. China’s decision to limit export of its rare earth minerals reminded champions of everything from electric vehicles to solar power of their dependence on such resources [see 'Waste: the next major source of rare earth minerals?'].

Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Leicester, calls for a thorough geopolitical analysis of renewable energy. “The world is going to be even more complicated”, he says.

Alex Evans, Head of the Resource Scarcity Program at New York University’s Centre on International Cooperation, agrees, and warns that the “age of uncertainty” goes well beyond energy. “We’ve just come out of a decade bookended, and largely defined by, shocks: 9/11 at the beginning and then at the end the financial crisis and the combined oil and fuel spike. This year there has just been wall-to-wall shocks from start to finish – the ongoing trials of the Eurozone, what’s happened in the Middle East, what’s happened in Japan, and we’re not even halfway down the list…”

“The key point”, says Evans, “is that these aren’t all separate crises. It’s to do with the interconnectedness of globalisation, coupled with the fact that [our existing] institutions are struggling to deal with this degree of complexity. Policy makers often don’t know what to do, how to cope, or where to start. You have to see issues like land, food, energy, water and carbon space as an interconnected set. Once you forget to do that and separate them out – which is what governments in the multilateral system do the whole time – you create displacement risks. And that means it is very easy to cause problems by accident, ignorance or stupidity. Take biofuels. These look like a sensible energy security measure, but then we discover that they have accidentally created a massive food security problem.”

Evans believes policymakers could do worse than look at the US National Intelligence Council. “This has a specific mandate to think long term, taking a very open source approach – drawing on covert intelligence, but also on think tanks and academic communities… It has a clear mandate to be a ‘red team’, licensed as an awkward squad, to ask hard questions. It’s all about the big picture, about issue synthesis, connecting dots between different issues.”

When you hit an age of insecurity such as ours, he adds, “the prevailing mood among policy makers is to ask: ‘When are things going to get back to normal?’ Well, the counterpoint to that is: ‘This is the new normal!’ Until we scale-up our institutions this is what we can expect – this is not a blip.”

And in that realisation may just lie an opportunity, he believes. “Most of the time, the political space doesn’t exist for really radical action on issues like climate change or scarcity. Then periodically you get shocks which give you a brief window when people are willing to think the unthinkable. I think that we need to use those shocks intelligently.”

And amidst all this uncertainty, says Bradshaw, there’s one obvious message. “The low-hanging fruit, the real no-brainer, is that we absolutely have to reduce our consumption of fuel, of electricity, of water. That goes straight to the bottom line: that’s the way to minimise risk.”

Wadi Fukin and the wells of peace

Eleven wells line the narrow valley of Wadi Fukin, on the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank, seven miles west of Bethlehem. Their water, drawn from a shallow rain-fed aquifer, is channelled to terraced agricultural fields and olive groves – an irrigation system that has been practised in the area for millennia.

Today, three communities have rival claims to this precious resource: the 1,200 residents of the Palestinian farming village; the 3,000 inhabitants of Tzur Hadassah, a suburb of Jerusalem; and a population of some 28,000 in Beitar Illit, an Israeli settlement perched on the hillside.

The rapid expansion of the settlement – thought to be the largest in the West Bank – has put considerable pressure on the watershed. An increase in impermeable surfaces means less rainwater seeps through to the aquifer, and its quality has been affected by waste building materials, loose earth and sewage from an overflow outlet above the fields of Wadi Fukin. In 2006, the pollution wiped out a whole crop of wheat.

It’s a well-rehearsed scenario: neighbouring communities fighting for access to a vital natural resource. But it’s also the site of an innovative ‘environmental peacebuilding’ project by Friends of the Earth Middle East. Through the project, young people and policy makers from Tzur Hadassah and Wadi Fukin have come together to learn about the watershed and plan for its future.

With support from the Governor of the Bethlehem region, the Head of the Wadi Fukin village council and a member of the Tzur Hadassah regional council, this collaborative campaign has been able to influence development plans. It has averted deep trenching that would have disturbed the flow of groundwater, and set up an agreement to protect the hillside terraces. The overflow of sewage from Beitar Illit has also been “significantly reduced”.

New economic opportunities have come out of it, too. Residents of Tzur Hadassah initiated a Community Supported Agriculture project, distributing produce from the village within the settlement. According to both communities, the activity of packing boxes of food has helped to build “a certain amount of trust”.

That’s not to say that the settler and indigenous communities are living peacefully side by side. But, for now, collaboration over a common resource is going a long way to avoid conflict.

Anna Simpson is Managing Editor of Green Futures. Additional material by Editor in Chief, Martin Wright.

Image credits: : yogli mogli / istock;  Abenaa / istock.

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