In 2017 there were 63 active peace operations—of which 13 were UN Peacekeeping operations. Many of these have been in place for decades, some even half a century, like those missions in Israel and Palestine or in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Of course, the challenge of such peacebuilding missions is not only to stop violence and prevent a rekindling of conflict, but moreover to help societies and governments reset their internal relations on a peaceful path towards sustaining peace.
In the short run, considering many interacting processes seems exhausting and admittedly complicated. It might be tempting to dismiss environmental issues when considering the seemingly insurmountable task of building peace after armed conflict. Yet, it is increasingly clear that the interaction between social, political and ecological processes decisively shape the post-conflict landscape. Often, the capacity of peace operations and post-conflict states to navigate the impacts of war and simultaneously govern natural resources is limited. But, an increasing body of research and policy experiences shows that in the long run it can be rewarding. Actually, there appear to be ecological foundations for a socially, economically, and politically resilient peace, although too often this potential remains unrealized in most peacebuilding processes.
Land and forest as risk and opportunity
The case of Colombia illustrates the complexity and competing interests in post-conflict arenas. It is noteworthy that protests against socio-economic injustices and privatization of land once sparked the longest lasting conflict in the Western Hemisphere. As such, it is no coincidence that the first chapter of the Colombian Peace Accord addresses issues of land use and rural reform. Environmental issues were a part of the problem. Some stress the Accord’s potential contribution to the positive transformation of environmental problems.
Yet, today, two years after the end of the civil war, Colombia stands at a crossroad and the environment moves into focus again. During half a century, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) ruled expansive territories of land and jungle. Unintentionally, the environment was protected from exploitation, as areas were not safe for loggers and miners to operate in. Now, these land masses are exposed and many actors flow into the previously inaccessible areas for logging, gold-mining and cattle-grazing. It is unclear whether Colombia’s resources will be carefully preserved or drastically exploited. For now, there is little doubt that deforestation has increased dramatically after the peace agreement. Hence, environmental integrity seems to be a symbolic chapter of the Peace Accord rather than an implemented reality. Again, the issue of natural resources was once the epicenter of the Colombian conflict. If it is true that history repeats itself, the sustainability of the peace may be threatened.
Water supply in post-conflict transitions
While land issues often receive some attention, few people are aware that peacebuilding missions are often directly involved in the management of water and sanitation. Recent research of water supply issues in Kosovo and East Timor shows that in fact, many peacebuilding missions have dedicated units dealing with water supply as well as with foul and waste water.
In East Timor, existing water infrastructure was poorly maintained and at times even targeted during the Indonesian occupation (1975-1999) and the ensuing violent transition towards independence in 1999. The resulting lack of access to safe water and adequate sanitation amplified the vulnerabilities of post-conflict communities and inevitably prolonged the human costs of war. For several months, the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) had to airlift thousands of bottles of drinking water to the peacekeeping troops that were dispersed across the country.
UNTAET faced many other challenges with regard to water sector reconstruction, some of them relating to false priorities and others from corruption and mismanagement. The failure to involve women in local water user committees is one of the missed opportunities—especially considering that UNTAET had a specifically dedicated Gender Affairs Unit. In cases where the involvement of women is high, the Asian Development Bank notes that water supply is more likely to be continually available within a shorter distance from homes, thereby decreasing vulnerabilities and providing pathways for human security and development.
Climate-related security risks and building peace
Now if managing natural resources in peacebuilding is complicated, just imagine how the impacts of climate change impede efforts to sustain peace.
The events of the 21st century have had a hard toll on the people in Iraq. Following multiple wars, insurgencies and decades of authoritarian rule and international sanctions, Iraq is today ranked 120th place in the latest Human Development Report. After 15 years of international peacebuilding efforts, Iraq remains home to poverty and severe trauma. As if the challenges are not big enough in Iraq, climate change is making things even more complicated.
Indeed, a recent report by the Expert Working Group on Climate-related Security Risks shows that climate-related security risks in Iraq have increased in recent years. The report highlights the rise of heightened communal tensions over access to food and water that intersect with ethnic and tribal identities. Furthermore, explores the report, diminished agricultural livelihoods are found to increase local support for terrorist groups. Agriculture remains the key occupation for millions in Iraq. But whilst the petroleum industry is saturated with massive financial resources, the Ministry of Agriculture receives one of the smallest allocations from Iraq’s national budget. Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the consequent peacebuilding mission, international efforts have failed to restore relevant sectors that would make the country and its population more resilient to climate impacts. In turn, climate change and mismanagement of water resources makes the livelihoods of millions of farmers unreliable. The resulting unemployment and vulnerability incentivizes groups like Islamic State to look for recruits among the disenfranchised.
Towards climate resilient peacebuilding
Colombia, East Timor, Iraq—building peace is rarely, if ever, straight forward. International efforts to build peace underwent substantial changes since the first missions following World War II. The UN Secretary General’s emphasis on conflict prevention and institutional reform of the peacebuilding infrastructure is an important pathway to learn from past failures and refocus and reinvigorate international peacebuilding efforts. Still, the management of natural resources is a critical challenge that remains overlooked—and, things will get even more complicated with the increasing impacts of climate change. Recovery plans to sustain peace can no longer exclude the management of the environment, natural resources, and strengthening societies’ resilience to climate impacts. What is necessary is recognizing that bolstering environmental matters and sustaining ecosystems is a matter of conflict prevention. With the right support, it may even be an opportunity to build a socially, economically, and politically resilient peace.
This is a crosspost from SIPRI.
The WritePeace blog was co-released in Swedish with Föreningen för Utvecklingsfrågor (FUF) and Mänsklig Säkerhet.