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Conflicts and their Impact on the Environment
Chiekh O. Sow, Deputy Director, Regional Office for Africa
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)


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It is my honor today, to be present among you and deliver on behalf of Dr. Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of UNEP, a speech on conflicts and their impacts on the environment in Africa. At the outset, let me underscore the desire of Dr. Topfer to be here with you in this august assembly, and personally speak to this distinguished audience. Unfortunately, prior engagements prevented him from doing so. Therefore I am very pleased to discuss with you UNEP’s position on the topic.

This paper is articulated around two axes. First, it discusses the issue of environmental security and the role of UNEP. Then, it presents the case of the UNEP rapid assessment need mission which was undertaken to inquire about the impact of refugees on the environment in Guinea.



Expanding human population, with growing economic development, has resulted in a pattern of resource utilization unsustainable by the life-support systems and ecological processes underlying economic activities in the various regions of the world and in the globe as a whole. The widespread destruction of ecosystems and the consequent losses in biological diversity testify to the unsustainability of current human actions. Recognition of this problem has brought sustainable development on to the political agenda for the past decade.

The Global Ministerial Environment Forum of UNEP Governing Council, which met in Malmö, Sweden in last May reiterated such continuing threats to the ecosystems and the environment with deep concern.

Despite the many successful and continuing efforts of the international community since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 and the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and some progress having been achieved, the environment and the natural resource base that supports life on Earth continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

The Global Environment Outlook 2000 of UNEP also provides a compelling assessment of the serious nature of the environmental threats faced by the international community. Special attention should be paid to unsustainable consumption patterns among the richer segments in all countries, particularly developed countries. It is worrisome that environmental stewardship is lagging behind economic and social development, and a rapidly growing population is placing increased pressures on the environment.

Environmental threats resulting from the accelerating trends of urbanization and the development of mega-cities, the tremendous risk of climate change, the freshwater crisis and its consequences for food security and the environment, the unsustainable exploitation and depletion of biological resources, drought and desertification, and uncontrolled deforestation, increasing environmental emergencies, the risk to human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals, and land-based sources of pollution, are all issues that need to be addressed.

The dawn of the twenty-first century marks a defining moment in the efforts of the international community to ensure that the growing trends of environmental degradation that threaten the sustainability of the planet are arrested and reversed. Hence there is an urgent need for reinvigorated international cooperation based on common concerns and a spirit of international partnership and solidarity. We are at the crucial moment in human history facing both risks and opportunities to destroy or secure the environmental basis of our life.


Armed conflicts and the preparedness for warfare are most destructive not only to people but also to the environment.

Serious armed conflicts continued, with heavy loss of life, during the 1990s. Major conflicts have plagued countries in Africa, Central Asia, Western Europe and West Asia over the past several years. Loss of life in war is accompanied by increased pressure on ecosystems.

Resource productivity collapse in war-affected areas, and there is a danger that environmental damage will affect much wider areas than those directly involved in the conflict. This was the case for both the Gulf War and the recent conflict in Yugoslavia. In the latter, the destruction of chemical and petrochemical complexes in Serbia led to the pollution of the Danube River, causing problems in the down stream countries of Bulgaria and Romania.

The flow of refugees to neighboring Balkan countries also led to environmental problems and the spread of disease. War related refugees are often compelled to extract fuel-wood and freshwater resources at an unsustainable rate in order to survive.

In addition to the environmental stress caused by warfare, there is now increasing concern that environmental degradation and resource shortages may actually cause armed conflict. Examples of environmental degradation capable of escalating into violence include severe water shortages, widespread desertification, health-threatening toxic contamination, and refugee flight from environmental wastelands.

Even within nations, increasing demands for limited natural resources create domestic tensions, as well as intensifying the pressure between private and public interests. National security is now increasingly dependent on environmental security.

In general, potential sources of conflicts arising from environmental problems may include:

  • Distribution of shared natural resources (e.g. international waters, marine resources);

  • Trans-boundary harmful environmental impacts (e.g. trans-boundary air pollution or marine pollution);

  • Implementation of policies that may allow activities that could cause harmful trans-boundary impacts on the environment, or the lack of actions to prevent such activities;

  • Environmental degradation in a country caused by activities of foreign governments or persons, including multinational corporations (e.g. relocation of hazardous industrial activities to other countries); and

  • Violation of the obligations under international environmental or environment-related agreements.

Relevant key concepts in addressing the relationship between conflicts and environmental issues include:

  • Sustainable development as an overall framework for prevention and resolution of environmental conflicts;

  • Concepts associated with sustainable development, such as the precautionary approach, prevention of environmental harm, common but differentiated responsibilities of States, global partnership and equity;

  • Promotion of implementation, compliance with and enforcement of international environmental commitments;

  • Peaceful and cooperative relations in the field of the environment; and

  • Informed decision-making, on the basis of prior consultation on the major planned activities that might cause environmental harm or have significant environmental impacts.


UNEP's current activities that could facilitate building environmental security include:

  • Providing relevant environmental data and information, including early warning of emerging environmental problems;

  • Facilitate the exchange of information among countries in the region, such as early notifications;

  • Provide an international platform for policy dialogue or planning of activities that might cause environmental harm (including trans-boundary environmental impact assessment);

  • Assist Governments in building their capacities to implement, comply with and enforce international environmental commitments;

  • Develop a regional mechanism to facilitate compliance with the agreed environmental commitments; and

  • Facilitate or provide a means of consultation and policy dialogue.

As highlighted in the Malmö meeting of UNEP, the root causes of global environmental degradation are embedded in social and economic problems, such as pervasive poverty, unsustainable production and consumption patterns, inequity in distribution of wealth, and the debt burden. Such root causes are also likely causes of economic and social instability, which in turn could cause problems in political stability and the security of nations.

While there is the need to further clarify many aspects of environmental security and its linkage to conflicts, it appears that tackling the root causes of environmental degradation would have positive effects for the prevention of conflicts, confidence building and building of solidarity and cooperation.

With the recognition of interdependence of economic, social, developmental and environmental issues, UNEP is strengthening its functions as the principal United Nations body in the field of the environment by focusing more on the inter-linkages of those issues and the root causes of the problems.

The success in combating environmental degradation and its root causes is dependent on the full participation of all actors in society, which is based on an aware and educated population, respect for ethical and spiritual values and cultural diversity, and protection of indigenous knowledge. Further action in this respect would also contribute to the building of a cooperative society.

There is an alarming discrepancy between commitments and action. Goals and targets agreed by the international community in relation to sustainable development must be implemented in a timely fashion. The mobilization of domestic and international resources, including development assistance, far beyond current levels is vital to the success of this endeavor. UNEP's action in this respect is also important for the enhancement of the building blocks for environmental security.

At the Malmö meeting, environmental ministers from around the world concluded their declaration as follows:

" At the dawn of this new century, we have at our disposal the human and material resources to achieve sustainable development, not as an abstract concept but as a concrete reality. The unprecedented developments in production and information technologies, the emergence of a younger generation with a clear sense of optimism, solidarity and values, women increasingly aware and with an enhanced and active role in society - all point to the emergence of a new consciousness. We can decrease poverty by half by 2015 without degrading the environment, we can ensure environmental security through early warning, we can better integrate environmental considerations in economic policy, we can better co-ordinate legal instruments and we can realise a vision of a world without slums. We commit ourselves to realising this common vision."

This is the vision of UNEP. By following these lines, UNEP will continue its actions to build the basis of environmental security.



Further to a request from the Government of the Republic of Guinea, the United Nations Secretary General directed the Executive Director of UNEP to assess the impact of refugees on the environment. A Joint UNEP/UNCHS mission visited Guinea from 29 November to 7 December 1999, and met in Conakry with UNDP, UNHCR, World Bank, IMF, UNICEF, FAO, WFP, USAID, GTZ, French Cooperation, the European Union, as well as Government Departments such as Refugee Coordination, Environment, Forestry, Agriculture and Habitat. The mission also visited the refugee campsites in the Districts of Forecariah, Nzerekore, Macenta and Guekedou.

The issue of refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone in Guinea is very complex; therefore political sensitivity is paramount in any attempt to address it. The main issue is the need for peace and stability in the sub-region. After ten years of presence on Guinean territory the refugees have blended into the society, which is very similar to theirs. As a result, it is difficult for the authorities to ask for their repatriation. Also many refugees are not accounted for in the official statistics. Some estimates come to around one million refugees whereas UNHCR’s number is 600,000. The reality is that about 40% of refugees are urban dwellers and are not registered in the camps established in rural areas.

The efforts made by Guinea to accommodate the refugees are commendable. On the individual side, the Guinean welcomed his brother and sister refugee into his home, sharing his meager resources with them, well before the government and the international community started to assist. The Government of Guinea also contributed significantly in addressing refugees’ issues by diverting regular expenditures of the budget to cater for their needs. This resulted in a great imbalance in the national accounts. Also, in order to promote peace and security in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the Government sent peacekeeping forces paid by the national treasury.

There is a debate on the impact of the refugees on the environment. Some studies concluded that this impact is minimal or positive, whereas other theories support the contrary. All over the territory covered (more than 700 km of rural roads), the mission noticed that the Guinean environment is degrading, and that much of this damage could be attributed to the presence of refugees in the Province of Guinee Forestiere. The mission found that the real debate is on the size of the refugee population, which should include the population of refugees in urban areas who are seriously damaging the fragile infrastructure of small towns and tampering on rivers, sewage and waste removal systems. The integration of rural and urban refugees into the equation provides the true picture of their impact on the environment (urban and natural).


Guinea has lost most of its forest resources in the last decade. The mission only noticed patches of remaining forests in the Province of Guinee Forestiere. Natural indigenous forests were cleared to benefit commercial loggers and make way for agricultural lands. The great majority of slopes were denuded of their natural palm-trees. This has seriously affected the landscape and resulted in soil erosion. Losses in vegetal cover and agricultural practices in valley areas, have reduced the availability of fresh water resources. This phenomenon is exacerbated by overuse of water resources by urban dwellers and the discharges of waste into waterways. Bio-diversity, and especially fauna, is also affected, as the mission did not encounter any wildlife in the region visited.

Priority should also be granted to human settlements. The number of refugees in Conakry is estimated at more than 100,000 or more than 10% of the population. In Nzerekore, with 50,000 inhabitants, it is estimated that at least another 50,000 refugees dwell in this town. The worst case was in Guekedou where the city harbors 150,000 refugees in a small town, which had a population of less than 20,000 before the arrival of refugees. This demographic pressure on the town’s infrastructure culminated in total chaos regarding the provision of basic social services, and degradation of the natural environment.

In light of the above, the mission recommends that urgent actions are needed. The main recommendation of the mission is the need to secure Peace and Stability in the Sub-region. Addressing environmental issues in Guinea alone can not be sustainable if Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau are not brought into the framework. However, the UN assistance ought to start with Guinea by supporting the process leading to a Donor Conference initiated by UNDP.

In addition, the top priority is to organize a coordination mechanism to tackle problems on the ground. A UN Coordinator should be appointed to initiate the Environment and Sustainable Development Initiative in the Gulf of Guinea. This initiative should adopt an integrated approach and be dealt with on a sub-regional and inter-agency basis. UNEP should lead the process in collaboration with Habitat, UNDP, UNHCR and other relevant organizations. UNEP will prepare a proposal to this effect. Second, immediate attention should be given to the availability of food to refugees through WFP. Finally, an urgent public sanitation package must be implemented to help affected towns to cope with the disasters they face.