for change

Jan Kubis
describes a pioneering endeavour addressing environment and security threats in the Southern Caucasus

The Southern Caucasus has long been a focal point for change, a bridge between Asia and Europe. Today, social, political and economic transformations are altering century-old relationships between countries and communities, affecting the natural environment and, in turn, being affected by it. In the worst-case scenario, environmental stress and change could undermine stability in the region. In the best, sound environmental management could be a means for catalysing stability while promoting human security and sustainable development.

Located between the Caspian and the Black Seas, and surrounded by economically, politically and culturally influential neighbours (Turkey, Iran and Russia), the former Soviet republics of Southern Caucasus – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – became independent states in 1991. They were challenged throughout the 1990s by the dismantling of the Soviet economy and by the pressures of political transformation. Now – though continuing to suffer from the dramatic economic decline of the 1990s and the environmental legacies of the Soviet era – they are emerging into a period that offers hope for a more prosperous future.

The Southern Caucasus countries share a recent history marked by tension and violent struggle, economic collapse and nascent recovery, and slow democratic development. And they are now in the midst of similar social, political and economic transformations.

The interaction between environment and other human security pressures in contributing to the threat of instability – or reducing it – is complex and depends on the context. But research suggests that – though conflicts have multiple causes – the degradation, depletion or mismanagement of natural resources linked to demographic change can harm local and international stability in two ways.

The first is by reinforcing and increasing grievances within and between societies: where few alternatives remain, or where perceived inequities or opportunities for enrichment are great, groups may compete for resources, creating opportunities for violence. The second is by weakening states – by providing revenue for insurgents and criminal groups, depressing economic productivity, or undermining the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of its citizens.

Basis for peace
But sound environmental management can also be a basis for building peace and for post-conflict reconciliation. A convincing body of work has demonstrated, for example, that nations are more likely to cooperate than to fight over the management of international river basins.

Recognizing the multifaceted character of environmental sources of human insecurity, three organizations with different mandates, expertise and networks – the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNEP – formed the Environment and Security Initiative (ENVSEC) in late 2002.

Working in consultation with national and international experts, ENVSEC seeks to identify and map situations where environmental problems threaten to generate tensions or offer opportunities for synergies – among communities, countries or regions. It also seeks to help host governments generate an agenda of environmental management instruments and to attract investments that can help promote peace and human security.

The initiative builds on the combined strengths, expertise and field presence of the partner organizations to perform three key functions. First, assessing vulnerability and monitoring environment and security linkages. Second, building capacity and developing institutions. And third, developing, implementing, and advocating the integration of environmental and security concerns and priorities in international and national policy making.

It offers governments a valuable approach in seeking to tackle the interconnections between environment and security in several ways. It is an open forum functioning at the invitation of governments, aimed at generating cooperation and ensuring coordination between international institutions and drawing on their respective strengths and experience. It draws its analysis from consultations with stakeholders in the region, from both government and civil society, fostering local ownership of the outcomes. It seeks to overcome disciplinary overlaps and integrate environmental, economic, social, political and institutional aspects of security. It combines analytical, geographic and communication skills to address policy makers at various levels. And it aims to create and implement practical approaches to environment and security linkages in vulnerable areas.

OSCE, UNDP and UNEP developed a joint study on environment and security links in the Southern Caucasus, at the invitation of the authorities of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, to assess risks to human security and stability within the framework of ENVSEC. The conclusions of the ENVSEC Southern Caucasus assessment report – presented to the environment ministers of the three countries concerned in Tbilisi in October 2004 – follow.

Sources of instability
From a security perspective, the sources of instability in the Southern Caucasus can be divided into two categories. The first comprises the continuous dangers stemming from the conflicts inherited from the Soviet collapse. These include the Georgian-Ossetian and the Georgian-Abkhaz conflicts, and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan based on territorial claims over the Nagorno-Karabakh region that has caused an outflow of refugees and internally displaced persons and the disruption of political and economic ties between the countries in conflict. The dangers of spillover from the unstable regions of the Northern Caucasus also fall into this category.

The second category of sources of conflict, or ‘new’ dangers, can arise from the decline in living standards and the shifts in the political landscape. New polarizations along socio-economic lines could have a regional dimension, and become a new source of instability.
Sound environmental management could be a means for catalysing stability
From an environmental perspective, the Southern Caucasus countries are striving to overcome the ecological consequences of the Soviet period, while regenerating their economies and addressing contemporary and future environmental concerns – including managing the impacts of rising industrial production, adapting to climate change and regulating new technologies. They need to target investment in cleaner production technologies and high value-added industries, and strengthen their waste management capacities if they are to revitalize their economies in an environmentally sensible way.

On the one hand, the lack of information about the state of the environment and the impact of environmental degradation on the safety of populations in zones of conflict can hamper peace processes. On the other, the upturn of economic productivity could increase tension over renewed pollution, or over access to natural resources such as clean water, soil and living space. Such environmental pressures could make social polarization and internal struggle more acute. And a government’s failure to effectively manage natural resources and environmental conditions in the interests of its citizenry could result in a loss of legitimacy by the state.

The report identifies three areas of risk for environment and security: environmental degradation and access to natural resources in areas of conflict; managing cross-border environmental concerns such as transboundary water resources, natural hazards, and industrial, infrastructure and military legacies; and population growth and rapid development in capital cities.

As they developed the report, experts and authorities from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia agreed on shared concerns and common priorities in dealing with environmental threats to security, including the need to assess, in depth, the state of the environment in areas of conflict. The task now facing local authorities is to define, with the assistance of the international community – including OSCE, UNDP and UNEP – a work programme designed to deal with the threats that have been identified.

Realistically, it is very difficult to reconcile the parties and make them cooperate as long as political issues remain unresolved. But this clear political precondition should not be a barrier to promoting scientific dialogue and supporting technical solutions that do not entail direct political cooperation between parties to the conflicts.

Projects addressing environmental problems that threaten human security will bring direct benefit as far as the safety of local populations is concerned. In the longer term, by avoiding further tensions, they will also make a positive contribution to the solution of broader political disputes

Ambassador Jan Kubis is Secretary General of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

PHOTOGRAPH: Wayne Oberparleiter/UNEP/Topham

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