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Sustainability: Our best defence

Sustainability_our_best_defenceColonel Gaddafi may end up doing more for the planet than many a hardened climate activist.’ As revolutionary unrest continues to sweep across North Africa and the Middle East, claiming thousands of lives, this editorial claim in the Financial Times sounds, at worst, flippant – and at best, naive. Out with the tyrant and in with the treehugger? Surely not. The point was that radical uncertainty about oil prices could prompt nations dependent on supplies from Libya to take a more serious look firstly at other sources of oil, but also at non-fossil fuel sources of energy.

Access to natural resources has always been both a cause of conflict and a weapon of war. In the past 40 years, we’ve seen civil unrest motivated by access to everything from natural gas (Indonesia) and charcoal (Somalia) to gems, gold and diamonds (Angola, Cambodia, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo), coffee and cocoa (Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia).

As John Beddington, the UK’s Government Chief Scientific Adviser warns, we’re in for more of the same as the ‘perfect storm’ of food shortages, water scarcity and uncertain access to key energy resources – not to mention a growing population – threaten to unleash violence and unrest. But does resource scarcity have to be a call to arms? Can the urgent need to plan for the future of our supplies and our planet be a catalyst for collaboration? Or even, dare we hope, for peace?

Alec Crawford, a researcher in climate change and security at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, sees the coming storm as an opportunity to bring authorities and local communities together for dialogue, technical cooperation and co-management of resources.

‘The good thing about the environment is that it provides a less political entry point for collaboration than many things,’ he says.

Initiatives to preserve ecosystems across political borders can go some way to establishing peaceful relations between rival communities. Take the Good Water Neighbours project. It was set up in 2001 by Friends of the Earth Middle East to raise awareness of shared water concerns between Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and promote collaboration on the ground (see ‘Case Study: Wadi Fakin’).

Another example is the Cordillera del Cóndor conservation zone, founded on disputed land between Ecuador and Peru. This mountainous stretch is particularly rich in biodiversity: its cloud forests are home to endangered species such as the long-haired spider monkey and the spot-winged parrotlet, playing an essential role in local hydrologic cycles. But the region also has important gold and copper reserves, whose extraction has sparked three major conflicts between the two countries since 1940 and been consistently opposed by the indigenous Shuar people. As part of the 1998 Brasilia Accord between Ecuador and Peru, a series of protected ‘peace parks’ were established, alongside proposals for coordinated irrigation, agriculture, tourism and mining initiatives.

Crawford is careful not to overestimate the ability of cooperation around a shared resource to lead to peace. ‘You can have collaboration and conflict at the same time,’ he remarks. ‘Take the Indus River Water Treaty. It’s been in place for about 60 years now and has somehow managed to survive despite the fact that India and Pakistan have been in conflict for much of that time.’

In many regions, however, the challenge of providing food, energy and water for growing populations in a volatile climate simply can’t be met without collaboration. And so recognising our dependence on shared resources not only offers a potential road to peace – it is also a necessary means of avoiding conflict.

Take the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty. Water use has been an essential element of nearly every peace negotiation in the Jordan River basin. According to this agreement, water drawn from the river is allocated on an aggregate basis, as opposed to a proportional one. Instead of saying ‘Jordan gets 50 per cent and Israel gets 50 per cent’, each country can claim a set amount. The implication, Crawford explains, is that if water levels fall to the extent that either country is deprived of its remit, the agreement will be called into question.

As resource scarcity threatens more communities, industries and economies, a new approach to security will be needed. Concerns such as land and water management will increasingly be ‘elevated’ from environment ministries to defence. As Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute and author of World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, argues: ‘We’ve inherited a definition where security is almost military by definition, because we came out of a century dominated by two world wars and a Cold War. But the threats to our security now are climate change, population growth, falling water tables, soil erosion, collapsing fisheries etc. And we can’t say that we don’t have the resources to save civilisation; we do. The question is how we use these resources.’

A diverse supply of key resources is an obvious way to keep the risk of sudden shortages to a minimum. The potential for renewable sources of energy in this respect is considerable. Why depend on an expensive resource from a hostile region when a combination of wind, solar, marine and geothermal – all sourced closer to home – could fit the bill?

This was the thinking behind Mena Geothermal, a start-up company installing ground source heat pumps at hospitals and schools in the Palestinian territories. ‘The Ministry of Public Works of the Palestinian Authorities estimates that we need 200,000 housing units in Palestine,’ says founder Khaled Al Sabawi. ‘Well, how are they going to provide them with energy? How are these homes going to be heated and how are they going to be cooled? Right now the Palestinian economy imports 93 per cent of its electricity from the Occupation.’

According to Sabawi, heating and cooling account for the majority of energy consumption in the Palestinian territories. Geothermal energy therefore makes for both a promising business proposition and a smart security solution.

That’s not to say that renewable energy sources are risk-free when it comes to security of supply. China’s decision to limit export of the rare earth minerals it produces (currently 97 per cent of global supply) reminded champions of photovoltaics – a solar energy system harnessing the power of the sun – of their dependence on a supply of rare earth minerals (see Green Futures, January 2011, p7).

Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Human Geography at the University of Leicester, calls for a thorough geopolitics analysis of renewable energy. ‘The world is going to be even more complicated,’ he says. ‘There’s more and more concern around fossil fuel scarcity and a whole new set of concerns regarding renewable energy.’ But the ‘low hanging fruit, the real no-brainer’, Bradshaw argues, ‘is reducing our consumption of fuel, electricity and water. That goes straight to the bottom line: that’s the way to minimise risk.’


Case study: Wadi Fukin

Eleven wells line the narrow valley of Wadi Fukin, on the Green Line between Israel and the West Bank, 12km to the west of Bethlehem. Their water, drawn from a shallow rain-fed aquifer, is channelled to terraced agricultural fields and olive groves – an irrigation system that has been practised in the Judean Hills for millennia.

Today, three communities have rival claims to this precious resource: the 1,200 residents of the Palestinian farming village; the 3,000 inhabitants of Tzur Hadassah, a village within the district of Jerusalem; and a population of some 28,000 in Beitar Illit, an Israeli settlement perched on the hillside.

The rapid expansion of the settlement – thought to be the largest in the West Bank – has put considerable pressure on the watershed. An increase in impermeable surfaces means less rainwater seeps through to the aquifer and its quality has been affected by waste building materials, loose earth and sewage from an overflow outlet above the fields of Wadi Fukin. In 2006, the pollution wiped out a whole crop of wheat.

It’s a well rehearsed scenario: neighbouring communities fighting for access to a vital natural resource. But it’s also the site of an innovative ‘environmental peace building’ project by Friends of the Earth Middle East. Through the project, young people and policy makers from Tzur Hadassah and Wadi Fukin have come together to learn about the watershed and plan for its future.

With support from the governor of the Bethlehem region, the head of the Wadi Fukin village council and a member of the Tzur Hadassah regional council, this collaborative campaign has been able to influence development plans. It has averted deep trenching that would have disturbed the flow of groundwater and set up an agreement to protect the hillside terraces. The overflow of sewage from Beitar Illit has also been ‘significantly reduced’.

New economic opportunities have come out of it, too. Residents of Tzur Hadassah initiated a community-supported agriculture project, distributing produce from the village within the settlement. According to both communities, the activity of packing boxes of food has helped to build ‘a certain amount of trust’.

That’s not to say that the settler and indigenous communities are living peacefully side-by-side. But, for now, collaboration over a common resource is going a long way to help avoid conflict.


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