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Securing peace, the environmentalist's way

Updated Thursday, 22nd August 2013

Can environmentalists teach politicians a thing or two?

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River Nile fishing Creative commons image Icon the apostrophe under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license The Nile provides vital resources to countries like Egypt

There has been recent media attention in response to Ethiopia's proposed Grand Renaissance Dam on the river Nile. Ethiopia intends to dam the river to set up a hydroelectric power plant, which will provide more than sufficient electricity to supply Ethiopia and neighbouring countries including Egypt. However, from the 11 countries that share it, the ultimate downstream Egypt is concerned this may result (to which Ethiopia denies) in reducing its supply of water and sediment, threatening its vital food production. This has led to palpable tension and heated exchange between the two countries. 

Whether deliberate or not, a broadcast of supposedly private debate among Egyptian MPs (with some openly advocating the use of force) has further raised the stakes. Understandably Egypt, which is used to having greater share in water allocation as result of colonial treaties, is concerned its main livelihood will be threatened. Egyptian President Morsi has promised to pay with blood for any water lost.

I must hastily add, expert analysts seem to think this posturing is likely not to result in all out war, but would probably just influence a negotiated  solution. The region and rest of the world hopes it will be a win-win solution.

Why be concerned on environmental issues

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Concern over environmental issues is duly deserved. Throughout history, civilisations have crumbled, following environmental decline. As recently as in the 17th century, mismanagement of their forest resources, caused the Easter Islanders lose crop productivity, lack wood for their canoes and resulted in inter-tribal warfare which further decimated their population. The only standing memory being the huge stone statues (moais) showing civilisation long gone.

With historical lessons like that it is not difficult to appreciate the underpinning environmental degradation roots of many current political problems. Concerns have frequently been raised by environmentalists, civic societies, politicians and even national security agencies. In its Quadrennial Defence Review in 2010, the Pentagon identified climate change associated problems as national security risks. In fact the role of sound environmental management in peace-building have recently been thrust to the limelight, for examle, with the Nobel Peace Prize winners for 2004 (Wangari Maathai) and 2007 (Al Gore) singled out for raising such environmental awareness.

If it is that serious, what can be done?

With increasing demand for resources due to increasing population, pollution and/ or rising standards, there is definitely ratcheting up of pressure for conflict among stakeholders. Tackling this with consensual and sustainable management approaches as well as technological solutions, is not only an issue of survival but also that of justice. For example, concern about environmental refugees from say impacts of rising sea levels or failed crops; let alone associated wars are stark reminders for action.

Ensuring peace would require working together with all concerned parties in a transparently fair dialogue. Although this may not always be easy, it is the right approach to ensure all stakeholders air their concerns and are clear about their duties. Many interdisciplinary approaches have been also developed for practical action. Often, even if slow and not fully effective, international bodies have developed policies that could contribute in guiding/enforcing appropriate solutions. In all this a fully aware and  empowered population will play a significant role in driving  for and ensuring policies and action go together.

Consequently, Egypt and Ethiopia had installed a mutual expert body to assess impacts. They have, with some measure of success established regional bodies to foster interests. They have also been briefing theirs and neighbouring populations on the importance and progress of developments. Although a final solution is yet to come by, hopefully all concerned wouldn't forget that: even if there are 11 countries, there is only one river to share.

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