In Defense of the Environment:
by Klaus Toepfer
Putting Poverty to the Sword
Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
One can easily clean up the language of war - "collateral damage, friendly fire, smart
bombs" - but cleaning up the environmental consequences is a far tougher task.
Undoubtedly it is the loss of human life, the suffering of those made homeless and
hungry that must be our primary, first, concern.
But all too often the impact on the Earth's life support systems is ignored, and ignored
I, would suggest, at our peril as the growing expertise of UNEP's Post Conflict
Assessment Unit is suggesting.
Environmental security, both for reducing the threats of war, and in successfully
rehabilitating a country following conflict, must no longer be viewed as a luxury but
needs to be seen as a fundamental part of a long lasting peace policy.
Few can forget the lakes and pools of petroleum, the TV images of smoke and flames
turning day into night, during the 1991 conflict in Kuwait. An estimated 700 wells were
damaged, destroyed and sabotaged, triggering pollution of water supplies and the
seas, the impact of which is still being felt.
It has been suggested that, as a result of the soot, death rates in Kuwait rose by 10
per cent over the following year. The only good news was that the over four million
tons of soot and sulfur did not climb higher than 5,000 meters, otherwise there could
have been potentially severe dangers to the regional and possibly global climate.
There are many indirect impacts of war on the environment too. The International
Campaign to Ban Landmines, which helped inspire an international convention, says
that tens of millions of explosives remain scattered around the world in former conflict
areas like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bosnia and on the African Continent.
These are not only horrific hazards for people, maiming and killing returning refugees
and local villagers. They effectively bar people from productive land forcing them to
clear forests and other precious areas for agriculture with consequences for the
fertility of soils, accelerated land degradation and loss of wildlife.
Warring factions and displaced civilian populations can take a heavy toll on natural
resources. Decades of civil war in Angola have left its national parks and reserves
with only 10 per cent of the original wildlife. Sri Lanka's civil war has led to the felling
of an estimated five million trees, robbing farmers of income. Many poor people in
developing countries critically depend on forests for food and medicines.
Our first principle is the pursuit of peace. Indeed it should not be forgotten that the
awarding of the Nobel Peace prize to Kofi Annan last year was award not only to the
UN Secretary General but to the UN system as a whole.
However, warfare may be justified when all avenues of diplomacy, when all paths of
reasonableness have been trod, and exhausted. The struggle to rid Europe and the
world from the insanity of fascism, culminating in World War II, was vital. Evil must be
confronted at all costs.
But, as the environment and its natural resources are all too often forgotten as the
long term casualty of war, then equally their role in triggering the tensions that can
spill over into conflict are also too often ignored.
Many conflicts on Continents like Africa have been driven or at the very least fueled by
a greed for minerals such as diamonds and oil or timber.
Some individuals and groups can make a fortune under the cloak of an ideologically
motivated war. It is estimated that UNITA rebels in Angola made over $ 4 billion from
diamonds between 1992 and 2001. The Khmer Rouge was, by the-mid 1990s,
making up to $240 million a year from exploiting Cambodia's forests for profit.
As the world's life support systems and natural resources become increasingly
scarce, so the possibility of conflict rises. Water, the most precious resource on Earth
and crucial for all life, is not evenly shared across the world and between nations.
There are 263 river basins, shared by 145 countries. But just 33 nations have more
than 95 per cent of these rivers within their territories.
By 2032, half the world's population could be living in severely water stressed areas.
Daily, 6,000 mainly children die as a result of poor or non-existent sanitation or for
want of clean water. It is the equivalent to a quarter of the population of a large capital
city like London dying every year.
Unless countries learn to use water wisely, learn to share, there will be instability and
there will be tensions of the kind that can precipitate war.
Countering this is sustainable development in action. We have an alliance against
terrorism, we need an alliance against poverty and solidarity with the marginalised,
we need to defend nature and our natural resources.
For little will ever be achieved in terms of conservation of the environment and natural
resources if billions of people have no hope, no chance to care.
As Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, observed just before the Johannesburg
World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), "sustainable development is…a
security imperative. Poverty, environmental degradation and despair are destroyers of
people, of societies, of nations. This unholy trinity can destabilize countries, even
The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, agreed at the end of WSSD, is the blue
print for reducing poverty and delivering development that lasts, development that
fosters a stable environment with social justice.
Making it operational was at the heart of a global environment ministers meeting,
UNEP's Governing Council, which took place at our headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, in
early February 2003.
We were delighted to be hosting it only weeks after the peaceful Kenyan elections
where a new government was swept into power on a wave of optimism. The doom
and gloom merchants, sadly all too often right when it comes to African democracy,
have been forced to eat their words. I am also delighted that the new Kenyan
government has poverty and a healthy environment among their top priorities
alongside a fight against corruption.
Like us, they believe that putting poverty to the sword is the peace policy of the 21st
So we need above all environment policy as a precautionary peace policy.
Governments are also waking up to the need to rehabilitate the environment if all else
fails and conflict occurs. Many are now recognizing that a polluted environment, that
contaminated water supplies and sullied land and air, are not a long term recipe for
In 1999, UNEP and its sister, agency UN Habitat, were asked to carry out a post
conflict assessment in the Balkans. Shortly afterwards, UNEP carried out a similar
exercise in Macedonia and Albania following the Kosovo conflict.
The findings are helping to guide the clean up and restoration of these countries.
We have now also completed an assessment of the Occupied Palestinian Territories
and Afghanistan and these studies were presented to ministers at our February
I hope the results will not only inform but inspire nations to do more so that the
peoples of these troubled lands can have the healthy environment they deserve, the
clean air, water and soils needed to deliver growth and prosperity.
But we must go further. There is endless debate before and after a war about the
economic costs including the costs of bombs and the costs of humanitarian relief. We
need to cost the environmental clean up too.
We have the Geneva Conventions, aimed at safeguarding the rights of prisoners and
civilians. We need similar safeguards for the environment. Every effort must be made
to limit the environmental destruction, using the environment as a weapon must be
universally condemned, must be denounced as an international crime against
human-kind, against nature.