Degradation of nature is contributing to conflict – can we reverse the trend?

20.02.2018

The degradation of nature is undermining the security and peace of billions of people worldwide – yet we know little of how sustainable and fair use of natural resources can help prevent conflicts in the Middle East and around the world. The conservation community should urgently explore this opportunity – writes Her Majesty Queen Noor Al Hussein of Jordan.

Displaced persons waiting at a water tank in Geneina, West Darfur, in 2007.

Every time I travel to Petra or the eastern desert regions of my country, I marvel at lessons we can learn from the history of those regions and their inhabitants. These lessons are captured in the beauty of the antiquities, which teach us about ancient technical innovations in water harvesting, conveyance and storage, about the benefits of carefully managing the delicate natural resources in a semi-arid region, and also about the exercise of power and the promotion of peace.

Our well-being and our natural environment are deeply intertwined in a dance of life that is as vulnerable as it is glorious

Today we need to grasp the links between key issues that challenge us across much of the Middle East and other parts of the world: our natural resources, our governance systems, and political conflict. We are learning this in dramatic and often painful ways – the wars, droughts, mudslides, hurricanes and prolonged arctic freezes of recent years are the Earth’s way of telling us something important: that our well-being and our natural environment are deeply intertwined in a dance of life that is as vulnerable as it is glorious. And when nature suffers the human burdens of bad governance, stressful political relations among neighbours, and warfare, it becomes part of the equation that determines the security or insecurity of billions of people across the globe.  

And yet, we remain largely ignorant about how to collectively manage resources such as water, land, and clean air in order to help prevent conflict. The conservation community should urgently act to address this gap, by answering several key questions.

Have we determined whether our current rate of exploitation of natural resources is sustainable? Have we calculated the gaps in essential resources in view of expected population growth? Do we know or admit the role of inadequate governance in creating stresses on our natural resources? And, have we sufficiently drawn on the wisdom and practical expertise of our own populations, accumulated over millennia, to identify the threats, the priorities for action, and the policy options available?

Hima (meaning 'protection' in Arabic) is a traditional land management practice which follows the seasons. Hima (meaning ‘protection’ in Arabic) is an ancient land management practice that was established in the Arabian peninsula by tribal peoples. Photo: Assad Saleh

The Middle East – a fragile equilibrium

In the Middle East, the close links between environment and security are only too apparent. In previous decades we most often heard about threats of conflicts over the region’s water sources and mineral deposits. But the dangers today are much greater, and their roots very different. We do not need to fear wars as our main threat; we need to fear the revenge of a natural environment that we have ravaged, neglected and overexploited so severely that our actions will result in desolate landscapes, increasingly desperate populations and massive refugee flows.

The dramatic recent expansion of conflicts in the Middle East – and the direct, sustained military interventions by foreign powers – are a result of this trend. Mounting conflicts in turn lead to poorer states, weaker governments, more terrorism and political violence, greater flows of refugees and internally displaced people, shattered cities, and tens of millions of people aimlessly and precariously adrift between their ravaged land and their fractured state.

We must identify the causes of these troubling trends that bring misery and hopelessness to so many people. This requires us to understand the role of sustainable, equitable resource use as a basis for both national well-being and regional stability, rather than as a luxury to be taken care of after peace has been achieved.

Water wars

The water-food-energy nexus is a good example of how the environment is intimately connected with human well-being, development, security and peaceful coexistence. If water and land resources are degraded beyond use, or suffer unusually long droughts, the entire chain needed to sustain urban and rural life collapses.

The consequences for the people of the Middle East would be catastrophic. We know very well how scarce, polluted, inequitably distributed water resources can undermine domestic development and political stability by decimating rural farming communities, promoting faster rural-to-urban migration, increasing poverty, unemployment and hopelessness, as well as disparities that in turn fuel political resentment and conflict.

Food security

The civil war in Syria, the Darfur conflict in Sudan, and conditions in Yemen are among the most poignant examples of natural resource mismanagement by governments leading to food insecurity, internal migrations, and military conflicts – all of which have been cruelly exacerbated by droughts. In 2009, several hundred thousand Syrians abandoned their homes, farms, and rangelands in north-eastern Syria due to drought, because they could no longer make a living there. 

Al Ruwaished Desert, Jordan. Credit Anark75 CC 3.0 Al Ruwaished Desert, Jordan. Photo: Anark75 CC 3.0

When it comes to food security, the Middle East is starting out from a very low base. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization report The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014, the Arab region reverses the global trend of decreasing hunger. Continued high population growth and climate change are likely to further undermine food and water security in the Middle East in the decades ahead.

Sustainable solutions

While the degradation of nature clearly contributes to conflict, let us not forget that nature can also be a key ally on the road to peace. Using natural resources sustainably and equitably can be a powerful tool that can deliver large-scale benefits, if it is well-planned, coordinated, and based on solid science and analysis.

This is why to address the threat of resource-related conflict we urgently need movement on three fronts: legitimate, negotiated, substantial international collaborations; the development of integrated policy responses; and the promotion of effective, participatory, and accountable governance systems across the Middle East.

In the Middle East, the sustainable management of natural resources as a basis for water and food security is far from being a novel idea. For thousands of years, nomads and villagers in the region have rationed their water, grazing areas and arable lands to preserve the productivity of a fragile, semi-arid environment. One of the world's first environmental protection systems – rangeland management, which maintained a balance between people, animal herds and the natural vegetation – was developed in Jordan as early as the 7th century AD.

Water channels carved in stone by the Nabateans to distribute water to the ancient city of Petra, Jordan Water channels carved by the Nabateans to distribute water to the ancient city of Petra, Jordan.  Photo: Mark Smith

Across our region, I marvel at ancient water conveyance and storage systems that allowed large cities to thrive in regions that are often deserted today. Some of these areas thrived thanks to technical prowess and sheer determination. For others – like the Nabatean Kingdoms in what is today southern Jordan – the key to success lay in their effective political leadership, equitable governance at home, and peaceful, mutually beneficial trade and political relations with more powerful neighbours.

We must urgently improve our understanding of how the sustainable and fair use of natural resources can help mitigate conflicts

The conservation community and others should draw on the many lessons and wisdom that remain preserved in our landscapes and in the history and knowledge of our people, who know the threats they face and the best antidotes to those threats better than anyone else. To protect nature and responsibly exploit its full potential, we must urgently improve our understanding of how the sustainable and fair use of natural resources can help mitigate conflicts in the Middle East and around the world.

The conservation community represented by IUCN and its broad member base can play a key role in bridging this knowledge gap. Nature is not only our home and our friend, it is also the not-so-secret weapon we must use to highlight the links between the soil, the sea, the air, and our own universal right to good governance and a dignified life.  

Topic: 
Climate change
Food security
Sustainable development goals
Water

Queen Noor Al Hussein

Her Majesty Queen Noor Al Hussein is an international public servant and advocate for global peace-building and conflict recovery. Queen Noor has made environmental priorities an essential component of her work to promote human security and conflict resolution. She is Founding and Emeritus President of BirdLife International and Trustee Emeritus of Conservation International, both IUCN Members, and member of the Ocean Elders. She has received the UN Environment Programme Global 500 Award for her activism, among other honours. Queen Noor is an IUCN Patron of Nature. 

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