New Internationalist

Armed conflict, environmental protection and the Sustainable Development Goals

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Unless the international community does more to protect and restore the environment from the impact of armed conflict, many countries will fail to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, writes Doug Weir.

This year will see the second biennial meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), the new, and it is hoped, more politically influential incarnation of the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Governing Council. One of UNEA-2’s joint themes this year is ‘delivering the environmental dimension of the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs). The SDGs, which replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to much fanfare in 2015, are intended as a blueprint for development for the next 15 years and seek to integrate the environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainable development.

Last October, and as part of the preparations for UNEA-2, the government of Ukraine announced its intention to table a draft resolution on the ‘protection of the environment in conflict affected areas’. The conflict in and around the Donbas region of Ukraine has had a number of serious environmental impacts, these range from groundwater contamination caused by flooded mines, to damage to its natural resources. The conflict also exacerbated pre-existing environmental problems in the heavily industrialized region. As a result, Ukraine has joined a growing number of countries whose environments have been seriously damaged or degraded as a result of armed conflict in recent years.

The initiative by Ukraine reflects a growing international interest in environmental protection in relation to armed conflicts. This is being fuelled by the recognition that the existing laws of war do little to minimize harm, while the largely ad hoc responses by the international community to environmental damage in the wake of conflicts are often inadequate. These are both problems that carry with them serious implications for the health and well-being of civilians and ecosystems alike. Similarly, an increased understanding and awareness of the role that natural resources can play in triggering and sustaining conflicts, and in building lasting peace, is encouraging a reappraisal of the environment as a security issue.

Armed conflict and the environmental dimension of sustainable development

One of the lessons from the MDGs was that conflict severely diminished the likelihood that their goals and targets would be met. This reflects the maxim that there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development. Indeed of the seven countries that had failed to reach a single one of the MDGs by 2014, six were classed as fragile states. In recognition of this, Goal 16 of the new SDGs is dedicated to the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development.

The SDGs dealing directly with environmental sustainability are a considerable improvement on the environmental targets in the MDGs, which were viewed as poorly integrated into social and economic development and in places difficult to measure. The new SDGs cover water resources and pollution, the protection of marine and terrestrial environments and resources, and climate change. Taken as a whole, they seek to tackle a broad suite of contemporary environmental challenges, from reducing water pollution and overfishing, to slowing deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Of the 169 voluntary goals of the SDGs, none specifically covers the need to better protect the environment before, during or after armed conflict. Nevertheless the lesson from the MDGs suggests that insecurity, and armed conflict and its aftermath, are key factors that influence the delivery of sustainable development targets. But to what extent would efforts to strengthen protection for the environment in relation to armed conflicts, as Ukraine’s UNEA initiative seeks to do, complement the aims of the SDGs?

Writing on the linkages between the protection of the environment in armed conflict and sustainable development in 2013, Dr Onita Das from the University of the West of England found that the weak existing legal provisions for the protection of the environment during conflict, and the lack of formal obligations governing assistance for harm, posed a significant challenge to sustainable recovery and development. Dr Das observed that it was: ‘…regrettable that thus far customary international law has not developed to a point where adequate protection is provided for the environment in times of armed conflict. Such environmental harm puts further obstacles in the path of sustainable development, having a negative impact on security, development, environmental and human well-being.’

The SDGs and the environmental impact of contemporary conflicts

The challenge that the environmental legacy of armed conflict will present for the attainment of the SDGs can be seen in a number of recent and ongoing conflicts. As befits the cross-cutting nature of sustainable development itself, warfare has direct and derived consequences for the environment, at times extending beyond the conflict zone itself. As the SDGs do not only apply to the least developed or developing countries but are universal, in theory they apply to all conflict affected states.

Beginning with Ukraine itself, which of the SDG targets will have been negatively influenced by the conflict? As noted above, there are fears of significant and widespread groundwater contamination from flooded mines; this poses a challenge to SDGs 6.3 and 6.6. Meanwhile the collapse of environmental governance has led to a rise in illegal timber extraction (SDG 15.2) and the loss of management for protected areas (SDG 15.4), in addition to the direct environmental damage wrought by the conflict itself.

The ongoing conflict in Syria has effectively halted nationwide efforts to meet environmental obligations from existing multilateral agreements on chemicals (SDG 12.4), biodiversity and water. And, while the security conditions on the ground do not allow for detailed assessment, data is emerging of widespread damage to industrial, water and power facilities (SDGs 3.9, 6.3 and 6.6). Similarly, oil installations across the country have been subject to attacks by armed groups and intensive bombing from Coalition and Russian aircraft, with potential repercussions for public health and the environment (SDGs 3.9 and 6.3). Population displacement from the conflict is also having an environmental impact, both in Syria and in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, with the massive influx of refugees impacting air quality (SDG 3.9), water quality (SDG 6.3) and biodiversity (SDG 15.4).

In Iraq, a country that suffered widespread damage to marine (SDG 14.1), terrestrial and freshwater (SDG 15.1) ecosystems in the 1991 Gulf War, the rise of Islamic State and the spill over from the conflict in Syria are creating new environmental problems and exacerbating existing ones. There have been numerous attacks on petroleum facilities and cases of deliberate pollution of rivers (SDGs 3.9 and 6.3). Loss of control over areas of the country is also limiting the government’s ability to deliver on Iraq’s national environmental policies.

Time to tackle conflict and the environment

The nature of damage related to these three conflicts supports the belief that the successful delivery of the key health, environmental and economic tests of the SDGs will require more than vague notions about transitions to peaceful and just societies. The direct and indirect damage caused by armed conflicts, not only to the environment itself but also to the systems of environmental governance upon which ecosystems, economies and public health depend, have serious consequences for sustainable development.

The SDGs do not explicitly require states to identify the environmental drivers of armed conflicts or integrate natural resource management into peacebuilding. They do not demand substantive progress on legal frameworks to minimize wartime environmental damage. And they do not insist on ensuring effective, well-funded and sustainable environmental assistance in the wake of conflicts, or the robust mainstreaming of environmental protection in humanitarian response.

Yet the lesson from the MDGs, and from conflicts across the globe, is that concrete efforts in all four areas would contribute significantly to the chances of war-torn states achieving the goals set out in the SDGs. In this respect, Ukraine’s proposed initiative at UNEA-2 this year is a welcome step forward and, as such, should be endorsed by all governments that support a successful outcome for the SDGs.

Doug Weir manages the Toxic Remnants of War Project @detoxconflict, part of a global coalition of NGOs advocating for a greater standard of environmental and civilian protection before, during and after armed conflict.

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