At a glance:
Environmental Security

The tsunami which devastated countries around the Indian Ocean last December tragically brought home the importance of environmental security. For it showed that – despite all humanity’s attempts to achieve political, economic and even military security – it can still be overwhelmed by the forces of nature.

Even before the tsunami’s appalling toll, 2004 was shaping up to be a record year for natural catastrophes. Preliminary figures estimated economic losses from hurricanes, typhoons and other weather-related disasters in just the first ten months of the year at $90 billion dollars, approaching the highest annual level on record.

The number and cost of natural disasters – storms, droughts and floods – have been steadily rising over the last half century. How much this is the result of human activities is unclear. Certainly, the earthquake that caused December’s tsunami was an entirely natural event; but some early reports suggested that areas which had kept their mangrove forests and had healthy coral reefs were less badly affected than similar ones where they had been destroyed.

Similarly, it cannot be said that the growing numbers of storms, droughts and floods are definitely caused by the global warming that has so far taken place; but increasing population and development in vulnerable areas have certainly increased their toll. What does seem clear is that if climate change accelerates, natural disasters will break new records; indeed, the resulting sea-level rise would make even a repeat of the tsunami more devastating.

Meanwhile growing overuse of resources is bringing new tensions. Wars are as old as civilization; their numbers vary from year to year. But increasingly conflicts are occurring within countries, and are often fuelled by such environmental factors as desertification, deforestation or competition for resources.

This may spread internationally, for key resources are becoming scarcer and more contentious. By 2025 two thirds of the world’s people are likely to live in countries with water shortages. Remaining fossil fuel reserves are increasingly concentrated in relatively few countries – not usually those with the greatest demand. Food production per person has levelled off, and stocks are falling.

The tsunami evoked remarkable solidarity around the world, as millions upon millions rushed to donate to appeals, provoking their governments to generosity. Yet the developed countries have far to go to meet official development assistance goals – and what they do provide is dwarfed by military spending. We owe it to the victims of December’s tragedy to realize that the only true security is to be found in seeking harmony with other peoples and with nature, and to reorder our priorities accordingly.

Geoffrey Lean

World deaths by type of natural disaster, 1994-2003 and world deaths and people affected by disasters, 1994-2003 (‘000)

Economic damage per reported disaster, by human development country groupings, 1994-2003

Indian Ocean tsunami, 26 December 2004 (figures as reported 1 Feb 2005)

World disasters by human development country groupings, 1994-2003

Ongoing global conflicts of low, medium and high intensity, 1945-2004

Oil production and consumption in the United States of America and China, 1993-2003 (million barrels per day)

Military expenditure and development assistance, selected countries and all donors, 2003 (billion US$)

Global cereal production and ratio of stocks to use, 1991-2004

PHOTOGRAPH: Photri/Topfoto

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Waking up | Planting security | Natural peace | People | No procrastinating on climate | Attracting private investment | Reshaping the energy and security debate | At a glance: Environmental security | Star profile: Salman Ahmad | How many Earths? | Green helmets | Books and products | Initiative for change | Security in turbulence | Water and war | Beating the ‘resource curse’ | Green peace | It’s poverty, stupid