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Why a Conference on Environmental Security?


The last century was by all accounts the most violent in the history of the human race. According to the millennium edition of the State of the World Report:

  1. Three times as many people fell victim to war in the last century than in all the wars from the first century A.D. until 1899.

  2. Cumulative worldwide resources devoted to military innovation may have amounted to some $3.5 trillion during the last half-century.

  3. Since 1960 alone, the global arms trade amounted to at least $1.5 trillion.

Violent conflict and the resultant destruction and displacement of people are, however, only but one side of the story. Coupled with these depressing figures is the issue of the damage that we have wrought on our environment during the past century and the manner in which we have in turn become victims of that damage. According to the Worldwatch Institute, the cost of natural disasters in only the first seven months of 1998 amounted to $72 billion, surpassing the previous record for an entire year of $60 billion in 1996. In that same year natural disasters created more refugees than inter-state wars and internal conflicts combined. It is therefore clear that our unsustainable production and consumption habits are having a discernible impact on the earth’s climate, and when these disasters strike, it is the poor who suffer the most. According to a recently released report of the Red Cross organisation, 96% of all deaths from natural disasters occur in developing countries.

Redefining Security

In this new era, the word security is undergoing a fundamental shift in definition, with many commentators arguing that it should be broadened to incorporate non-military factors such as social inequities, poverty, environmental degradation, and migratory pressures. With the ending of the Cold War the world’s focus has shifted from concentrating on superpower conflict to an ever growing concern with regional military disputes and the connections they have to environmental destruction and scarcity of resources. As the Brandt Commission stated as far back as 1980:

"Few threats to peace and survival of the human community are greater than those posed by the prospect of cumulative and irreversible degradation of the biosphere on which human life depends. In a global context, true security cannot be achieved by the build-up of weapons, but only by providing basic conditions for solving non-military problems that threaten security. Our survival depends not only on military balance, but also on global co-operation to ensure a sustainable biological environment."

It is within this vein, that GLOBE Southern Africa has decided to build on the success of our two previous conferences, and organise another regional forum for parliamentarians from throughout East and Southern Africa to grapple with this important concept and the numerous issues that are necessarily embodied within it. Spread out over two days, and divided into four distinct sessions, experts from each of the different fields will attempt to stimulate the debate by offering their perspectives on each of the problems under discussion and in the process hopefully generate a greater regional synergy in the tackling of them.

Security and the Environment

A recent report of the United Nation’s Secretary-General’s office concerning the causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa, outlines the following sad facts:

  • Since 1970, more than 30 wars have been fought in Africa, with the vast majority of them being intra-state in origin.

  • In 1996 alone, 14 of the 53 countries of Africa were afflicted by armed conflicts, accounting for more than half of all war-related deaths world wide and resulting in more than 8 million refugees, returnees and displaced persons.

This opening session of the conference will therefore attempt to provide a context for the continued proliferation of these conflicts in Africa and the possibilities that exist for preventing them in the future. It will then move into an exploration of what legal mechanisms can be used in addressing the environmental consequences that arise out of such conflicts. Finally, the important issue of natural disasters will be covered, and in the wake of the recent Mozambique and South African flood disaster the question will be raised as to how we can develop greater regional capacity in both anticipating and responding to these challenges more effectively.

Energy Security in Africa

At present the global energy market is dominated by fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. The growth of this fossil fuel based energy system over the last century has, however, led to an increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few multinationals. At the same time it has also created huge imbalances in energy use and social well being around the world. This point is illustrated by figures from the Worldwatch Institute which shows that the richest fifth of the world’s population presently accounts for 58 percent of worldwide energy use, while the poorest fifth has to make do on less than 4 percent.

Coupled with these glaring disparities is the enormous cost that fossil fuels continue to exact from the environment in terms of increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, exacerbating the problem of climate change. In the October 1998 edition of the journal Nature, leading scientists argued that global climate change could become the environmental equivalent of the cold war. Greenhouse-induced climate change has in fact been ranked by some analysts as one of the six types of environmental change that could lead to violent inter-group conflict.

It is therefore clear that this next century will need to see the world undergo a profound shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels and into systems that employ more sustainable and renewable forms of energy. The conditions for this shift are especially ripe in developing countries, given their generous endowment of renewable energy sources and the fact that they are able to "leapfrog" outdated twentieth century technologies and acquire energy systems that are more environmentally sustainable. This session of the conference will therefore attempt to unpackage some of the complex issues surrounding the topic of energy security, allowing policy-makers to make sense of this burgeoning energy transition and how best to position their countries to take full advantage of it.

Water Security in Africa

Freshwater, as well as being essential for life on this planet, also plays a fundamental role in numerous societal activities such as the production of food and energy, transportation, waste disposal, industrial development and human health. It is precisely for this reason, however, that the potential for conflict over this resource is so large. This is exacerbated by the fact that rivers do not respect international borders, with more than half the land area of the world being in an international watershed, where river flows or lakes are shared. In Africa this situation is particularly acute, given the massive disparities that exist in water availability and use within and between different countries. In Southern Africa, which is a region of growing demand for water, the boundaries of eleven Southern African States lie across fifteen river basins and straddle five lakes. The Orange River Replanning Study (ORRS), further estimates that all of southern Africa’s freshwater resources will be fully utilised between 2025 and 2030.

According to UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook 2000, it is expected that up to 16 percent of Africa’s population will be living in countries facing water scarcity and 32 percent in water stressed countries. Given these sobering figures, it is clear that any discussion of environmental security in Africa will need to give due consideration to the management of freshwater resources. The speakers in this session will therefore outline possible ways in which this resource can be managed so as to mitigate the future potential for conflicts in this area.

Regional Security and Co-operation in Africa

Given the above facts, it is clear that the only solution to protecting the global commons and ensuring a sustainable development path for the world hinges on our ability to see beyond the simple nation-state ideal and engage in co-operative international endeavours. This session of the conference will therefore concentrate on highlighting regional initiatives that are attempting to foster such co-operation, while at the same time identifying other possible areas for future collaboration. It is therefore believed that this conference will play a substantial role in building awareness around both present and future threats to environmental security in the region, and in the process help legislators develop policy that takes these threats into account.


  1. State of the World 1999, Brown and Flavin, Earthscan, London, 1999.

  2. The World’s Water 1998 – 1999 : The biennial report on freshwater resources, Gleick, P.H.,  Island Press, Washington.

  3. The Environment as a Cause of Insecurity, Sherman, R.,  Group for Environmental Monitoring, Johannesburg, 1999.

  4. Global Environment Outlook 2000, United Nations Environment Programme, Earthscan, London, 1999.

  5. The Causes of Conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa, United Nation’s Secretary General Report, 1997.