Dialogue  October-December, 2004, Volume 6  No. 2

Environmental Challenges: The Spiral of (In) Security


In popular perception environmental crisis is a recent phenomena, though many argue that there has been some form of environmental consciousness at the end of the 19th century particularly in Britain and the US with the foundation of the National Trust, the Wilderness Society and similar organization. However, what is providing to be the most significant dimension of the 20th century is its environment history. For about three scores, environmental issues were considered non sequitor to international relations. Realism ‘as it is’ world view was dominant, while environmentalism ‘as it ought to be’ understanding-coexistence and harmony with nature-remained peripheral. Today, environment problems constitute an important part of global discourses. It is now quite apparent that environmental degradation can imperil nations’ most fundamental aspect of security by undermining the natural support systems on which all of human activities depends. Because environmental degradation transgress national boundaries, they can jeopardise not only the security of the country in which they occur, but also that of others.1

Changing Nature of Security

As a key concept security commands a great ‘disciplinary power’. From time immemorial people have always alienated their fears to emperors and sovereign states in order to secure from the uncertainties.

*Ajey Lele, Research Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi.

*Dr. Uttam K. Sinha, Associate Fellow at IDSA, New Delhi

In the ‘dominant centre, less-dominant periphery’2 matrix of the Cold War, security was based primarily on the ‘realist’ framework of defence and matters military with little space for alternative interpretation. In the post-Cold War period the centre-the bipolarity-diffused. The diffusion of power-the rapid changes in the international system impacted by varied political, national, economic and environmental issues-’decentred security’.3 As a result the discourse and queries on security has undergone a profound change from being primarily state-centric to a “reinvention of security in terms other than military”.4

Discourses on security are often competing against each other in order to gain legitimacy and to become ‘the’ discourse. For example, in the immediate post-Cold War times of peace-dividends, institution building and new approaches to resolving conflict, the spotlight fell on environmental issues. In fact, UN Security Council Resolution in early 1992 acknowledged that threats to international peace and security can come from “non-military sources of instability in the economic, social humanitarian and ecological fields”. Post-9/11, the dominant security discourse is related to fighting terrorism—global war against terrorism (GWAT).

A Theoretical Understanding

In exploring the dynamics of contemporary conflicts, some scholars, particularly over the last decade or so, focused on the ‘interconnectivity’ between environmental factors and violent conflict-for example between migration and environmental mismanagement and between ethnic conflict and resource disputes. Such an approach corresponded to the post-Cold War reexamination and redefinition of security that went beyond the traditional notion of state-centric security towards a more human-centered conception.

The initial literature focused primarily on inter-state conflict over natural resources.5 Prominent examples are conflicts over oil and water resources. Subsequently, the focus shifted to social conflict with emphasis on intra-state conflict.6 While the ‘interconnectivity’ is apparent, the difficulty, however, lay in the causal analysis. Further research programmes in this field clearly established the fact that there can be no single causal factor to environment-induced conflicts. This understanding enables ‘embracing’ rather than ‘eliminating’ multiple causality.

The environment-induced social conflict analysis is embedded in the ‘Critical approaches’ to understanding environmental issues rather than the problem-solving ‘reformist’ tradition that searched for solution through managerial and technological know-how. This differentiation underlines a crucial fact-that environment degradation is not merely about a mismatch between the impact of human activities and the environment’s capacity to sustain them or simply about technical ‘fixation’, but more importantly the interlinkages between the social and economic issues, equity and justice and, above all, the political interest. An extension to this is the postmodernist approach to environmental issues that “aims to give voice to the poor, oppressed, and otherwise disadvantaged in an attempt to limit hegemonic tendencies of the powerful.”7

The epistemological discussions and findings of numerous research programmes have come to an understanding that natural resources and environmental issues do indeed play a role (and will increasingly do so) in a significant proportion of conflicts and therefore the usefulness of including environmental issues in debates on security.

Environmental Security

As a starting point, there is “always something worth securing”.8 Post-Cold War period, environmental issues have contested to become ‘located in a security logic’.9 What makes environmental problems a case so compelling as to brush aside state-centric proprietorship of security? First, Since environmental problems cut across borders, it challenges the dominant Cold War security themes of ‘territoriality’ and ‘impermeability’.10 

Considering environmental issues as one of five different sectors of security that interact-military, political, economic, societal and environmental-corresponds to the fact that the state is being increasingly challenged by a new set of interconnected problems.11 Second, in the traditional security understanding, the protection of territorial integrity is primarily based on the threat from an enemy ‘other’. In the case of the environment, the threat comes from the imbalances in the ecosystem, policies of the state, the attitude of people and the mind-set of corporations. Third, in the traditional security approach, actor participation and contribution to enhancing the understanding of security is limited, whereas mapping environmental threats and seeking remedies to prevent it requires a broad-based participation.

Environmental Threats

The root of most violent conflicts throughout history has been competition for territory and resources; such conflicts are likely to intensify as resources become scarce and the quality of the environment degrades even further. One particular area of tension and rivalry will be over transboundary resources such as river waters that follow between countries. Since there are more than 200 major river systems of which about 150 are shared by two nations, and some 50 by three or more nations, hence the likelihood of conflict emanating from the consumption and distribution pattern of the river waters owing to climate changes cannot be underestimated.

Another issue is the increasing number of refugees across the world. It is estimated that there are 18-19 million refugees. Apart from the formation of national entities and rising nationalism that generate such mass flows, the cause-effect relationship between environmental degradation and violent conflict can act as a decisive catalyst in sprouting a recognizable type of ‘environmental refugees’ also referred to as ‘environmental displaced people’. There are about 9-10 million of such refugees. The ecological impacts of large refugee movements have only recently received serious attention, but it is increasingly acknowledged that large influxes of people can have significant environmental implications for the receiving region. This cumulative causality is a characteristic feature of the link between environment and security.

 Recently, scientists at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research have shown that there is a 90 per cent chance that global temperatures will rise 3-9 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 100 years.12 This is a big jump over the increase that was observed over the last 100 years, which was only about 1 degree. In the near future, the study predicts that average global temperatures will rise 1-2 degrees in the next 30 years. In some geographical locations, the impacts of global warming may be positive. For some crops, increased carbon dioxide aids growth and at high northern latitudes winters will be less cold and the growing season longer. Recently (December 2 2003), President Vladimir Putin cited this evidence as a good reason for Russia not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Putin pointed out in a tongue-and-cheek manner: “an increase of two or three degrees wouldn’t be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up”.13 The 1997 Kyoto protocol to combat climate change will only come into legal force when countries responsible for more that 55 per cent of rich nation’s greenhouse gas emissions have ratified it in their parliaments. Ratifications now cover 44 per cent; Russia would add 17 per cent and hence activate the protocol.

However, most climate change, especially if the change is rapid, is likely to have negative impacts. For example, changes in sea level, rainfall, and temperature extremes. It is estimated that owing to thermal expansion of ocean water linked to melting of glaciers, sea level is likely to rise by about half a metre by 2100. Many islands in the Pacific and the India Ocean will have to face catastrophe. Sea defences at enormous cost will strain the economy. For large river delta countries like Bangladesh or for that matter the southern part of China such defences will be inconsequential.

A second significant impact of global warming is likely to be on water supplies. Warming of the Earth’s surface means greater evaporation and, on average, a higher water vapour content in the atmosphere. Because the latent heat of condensation is the main energy source for the atmosphere’s circulation this leads to a vigorous hydrological cycle. Heavy rainfall may become heavier while semi-arid areas may receive less rainfall. There will be more frequent and more intense floods or droughts, especially in sub-tropical areas, which are vulnerable to such events. Floods and droughts cause more deaths, misery and economic damage than any other type of disasters. Any increase in their frequency could be the most damaging impacts of global climate change. Linked to this is the food production particularly because of changed water availability.

Considering the linked impact of global warming to sea-level rise, food production, droughts and floods; environmental refugees will increase’ leaving a telling impact on the receiving countries. Figures estimate that there may be 150 million such refugees by 2050.14

Concerns for India

In the Indian context environmental problems are many. None of course greater than the challenge to figure out ways to bring economic well being without destroying the land, water, air and biodiversity required to sustain life itself. The emerging concerns are climate change and trans-boundary movements of hazardous wastes. The solution to the problem of global warming as mentioned earlier is complex and impinges on national interests. The problem gets further complicated as energy-intensive economy growth increases. With respect to energy, India is a net importer, consuming roughly 3 per cent of the world’s total energy. Nearly 30 per cent of India’s energy needs are met by oil and more than 60 per cent of that oil is imported. India is self sufficient in coal, which has the maximum carbons, hence economic interests clash with environmental interests. Also, oil import dependence directly affects geopolitical interests. Non-carbon based sources like nuclear energy, wind and hydropower are not sufficient. More debate and action is required on the strategies to overcome global warming.15

The tragedy is science and scientists have no place while making policy on climate change and the issue of equity is never addressed in these negotiations. China plans to undertake PNE (peaceful nuclear explosions) during 2009-10 in order to tap and divert Brahamputra river water. The tapping of the water may upset the fragile ecological balance of the Brahmaputra valley and basin. It will also affect the flow and balance in Bangladesh. There is a need for India to solve this problem bilaterally by keeping the interests of its NE region in mind.16

There are differing opinions amongst the experts about the utility of big dams. Non-governmental organizations are of the opinion that the big dams are detrimental rather than beneficial to local people, against the government view that expanding areas under irrigation is critical for the region’s food security concerns.

Both India and Bangladesh want Nepal to build high dams to help augment dry season water flows of the Ganga river and to hold back monsoon floodwaters.17 However, India needs to set a template for international cooperation in this field first by solving its domestic problems like Sardar Sarover dam.

Water resources are an issue of ever-increasing importance worldwide given rising populations and increasing environmental degradation. Water has also become a divisive issue, both within and between countries. In the Indian context, the on-going Cauvery waters dispute, the controversies surrounding the Sardar Sarovar Project and the projected shortfalls in water supply which will affect large tracts of the country in the coming years, are just a few of the developments that serve to underline the need for a better understanding of water resources.18

Kaveri problem and few other international problems are indicators that in future India will have to address both inter and intra-state water disputes. There is a need to fashion a national water law. Also, there is a need to revisit the existing water treaties to remove ambiguities. A comprehensive national policy should emerge to eliminate the internal water disputes. A quick decision needs to be taken based on sound scientific analysis and giving due importance to social dimensions about the river-linkage schemes.


We are a “risk society”-a notable phrase of Ulrich Beck. Indeed, risks have become all prevailing and there seems little escape from the culture of warning and the politics of prediction and prevention. Environmental concerns have accentuated this further. Be it the scientific community, the media or the NGOs, predicting and warning of environmental catastrophe is a recurring theme. While risk-assessment has become a cult, state-level response, while long on good intentions, invariably falls short on specific remedies.

In 25 years, two third of the world will not have enough water. Increased fossil fuel will mean increased global warming. Health problem, pollution, biodiversity loss all will carry an enormous price tag. The signs are ominous and if allowed to grow unchecked than security in all it’s significance will be ‘under siege’ from environmental threats.19 States will have to cast away outdated power axioms, game of one-upmanship and brinkmanship and look security holistically in order to weave what Karl Deutsch had imagined some 45-years ago a ‘security communities’ based on mutual compatibility of values. Environmental concerns on which the very sustainability of life depends has such values that can profoundly shape security politics not only of states but also of human beings.


     1.   Norman Myers, Ultimate Security (New York: WW Norton and Company, 1993), p.17.

     2.   James Der Derian, The Value of Security: Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, and Boudrillard in David Campbell and Michael Dillon (eds.), The Political Subject of Violence, p.94. See also Der Derian’s On Diplomacy: a Genealogy of Western Diplomacy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987)

     3.   ibid, p.95

     4.   Buzan, Barry, Waever, Ole and de Wilde, Jaap, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (London: Lynne Riener Publishers, 1998) p.210

     5.   Prominent work in this field are by Arthur Westing, Global Resources and International Conflict (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) and Robert Mandel, Conflicts Over World Resources (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1988)

     6.   For example, Ted Gurr, Minorities At Risk (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace, 1994). The author points out that discrimination and competition for scarce resources was experienced economically by 147, and politically by 168 of 233 ethnic groups studied. Most groups organized to defend their rights and in more than 80 cases, the conflict turned violent. Similar studies have been carried out by Peace and Conflict Studies Program, University of Toronto, the Peace Research Institute Oslo and the Swiss Peace Foundation.

     7.   Paul Wapner, “The Sovereignty of Nature? Environmental Protection in a Postmodern Age”, International Studies Quarterly, vol. 46, 2002, p.167

     8.   Hugh Dyer, ‘Environmental security and international relations: the case for enclosure’, Review of International Studies, no.27, 2001, pp-441-450    

     9.   Jef Huysmans in Miles, Robert and Thranhardt, Migration and European Integration. The Dynamics of Inclusion and Exclusion (London: Pinter Publishers, 1995), p.54

   10.   John Herz, International Politics in the Atomic Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), p.76

   11.   Barry Buzan, People, States and Fear (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991) p.17

   12.   http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/headline_universe/global_warming_2001.html

   13.   http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99994223

   14.   Norman Myers, Environmental Exodus, Climate Institute, Washington DC, USA, 1995

   15.   Praffula Ketkar, The Science and Politics of Climate Change, 17 Nov 2002, www.ipcs.org

   16.   Col. P.K. Gautam (Retd.), Some Sino-Indian Areas of Environmental Cooperation and Concern, 24 May 2001, www.ipcs.org

   17.   A report on South Asian Hearing for the World Ccommission on Dams, Colombo, Dec 13, 1998

   18.   R R Iyer, Water: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2003

   19.   See Norman Myers (n.1)

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati