environmental scarcity and conflict - Disasters and Conflicts - UNEP


environmental scarcity and conflict - Disasters and Conflicts - UNEP

UN-EU Partnership

Strengthening Capacity for the Consensual and Sustainable

Management of Land and Natural Resources

The management of land and natural resources is one of the most critical challenges facing

developing countries today. The exploitation of high-value natural resources, including oil,

gas, minerals and timber has often been cited as a key factor in triggering, escalating or

sustaining violent conflicts around the globe. Furthermore, increasing competition and

conflict for diminishing renewable resources, such as land and water, is on the rise. This is

being further aggravated by environmental degradation, population growth and climate

change. The mismanagement of land and natural resources is contributing to new conflicts

and obstructing the peaceful resolution of existing ones.

To improve capacity for land and natural resource management and conflict prevention, the

European Union partnered with the Expert Reference Group of the UN Framework Team (FT)

in late 2008. The aim of this partnership was to develop and implement a strategic

multi-agency project focused on building the capacity of national stakeholders, the United

Nations system, and the European Union to prevent land and natural resources from

contributing to violent conflict. Six UN agencies, programme or departments have been

involved, including UNDP, DPA, UNEP, PBSO, UN-HABITAT and DESA. The partnership is

also designed to enhance policy development and programme coordination between key

actors at the field level.

The United Nations Interagency Framework Team for Preventive Action




The first outcome of this project is an inventory of existing tools and capacity within the UN

system and a set of three Guidance Notes on addressing natural resource management and

conflict prevention. These Guidance Notes cover: (i) Land and conflict (ii) Extractive

industries and conflict, (iii) Environmental scarcity and Conflict, (iii) Capacity development

for managing land and natural resources.

Based on the Guidance Notes, the second outcome of the project is to deliver a series of

training modules for UN and EU field staff, as well as local partners, to enhance the

knowledge and skills needed to understand, anticipate, prevent, and mitigate potential

conflicts over land and natural resources. Participants will acquire the skills to formulate and

operationalize preventive measures in relation to natural resource management (NRM) and


In countries where specific NRM and conflict challenges are identified, the project will aim

to provide focused technical assistance in the development of conflict prevention strategies.

This could include the deployment of staff and other experts to assist the UN Country Team

(UNCT), including the Resident Coordinator (RC) or Peace and Development Advisor, in

analysing options and designing programmes. Where needed, dedicated follow-up

measures will also be undertaken on an inter-agency basis, in partnership with the EU.

For more information, please contact Mr. Mohamed Yahya at the Framework Team

Secretariat on: +1-212-906-6622 or mohamed.yahya@undp.org or David Jenson of UNEP

at David.Jensen@unep.org

UN Interagency Framework Team for Preventive Action

Hosted by: UNDP, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery

One United Nations Plaza, Rm. 2084, New York, NY 10017, U.S.A.

Tel.: +1-212-906-5422 E-mail: framework.team@undp.org

with funding and support from the European Union



Executive Summary

Natural resources and conflict

Conflict arises when two or more groups believe their interests are

incompatible. It is not in itself a negative phenomenon. Non-violent

conflict can be an essential component of social change and

development, and is a necessary component of human interaction.

Non-violent resolution of conflict is possible when individuals and

groups have trust in their governing structures, society and

institutions to manage incompatible interests.

Conflict becomes problematic when societal mechanisms and

institutions for managing and resolving conflict break down, giving

way to violence. Societies with weak institutions, fragile political

systems and divisive social relations can be drawn into cycles of

conflict and violence. Preventing this negative spiral and ensuring

the peaceful resolution of disputes is a core interest of the

international community. The challenge for UN, EU and other

international actors is to promote positive social transformation,

while mitigating the risks and potential impacts of violent and

damaging conflict.

Environmental factors are rarely, if ever, the sole cause of violent

conflict. However, the exploitation of natural resources and related

environmental stresses can be implicated in all phases of the conflict

cycle, from contributing to the outbreak and perpetuation of violence

to undermining prospects for peace. This Guidance Note

accordingly focuses on the role of natural resources in triggering,

escalating or sustaining violent conflict. Its aim is to provide

practical guidance on the role that the UN and EU can play in early

warning and assessment, structural conflict prevention (long-term

measures) and direct conflict prevention (short-term measures). It is

meant to provide a combination of strategic advice and operational

guidance, as well as to unite existing tools and guidance under a

single framework.

Environmental Scarcity and conflict

Resource depletion, environmental degradation and climate change

pose fundamental threats to human security. Separately or in

combination with other factors, they can destabilize livelihoods,

negatively affect ecosystems, and undermine peace and

development. Where local and national institutions lack the capacity

to resolve disputes that may arise over the degradation or depletion

of resources, violent conflict can emerge. As population and

economic growth increase, so do the demand for scarce resources

and the potential for conflict. It is therefore crucial that UN and EU

development practitioners understand how to prevent conflicts over

natural resources, and how to contain and defuse such conflicts

when they occur. This Guidance Note aims to support their efforts.

Drivers of environmental scarcity

The term “environmental scarcity” describes a situation where

renewable resources – such as water, forests or productive land

are degraded or decreasing (in the sense that the resource is used

faster than it is replenished). Environmental scarcity can also refer to

the inequitable distribution of resources within a country or region.

The causes of environmental scarcity, as detailed below, can be

local, regional, national, international or global. Inadequate waste

disposal, for example, can pollute freshwater supplies in a

community; large projects initiated by governments or the private

sector may drastically reduce the size of forests and increase

erosion; and the warming global climate may increase evaporation

rates and reduce surface water availability.

This Guidance Note begins by outlining the main components of

environmental scarcity and describing how changes in resource

availability can lead to conflict between user groups. The following

three drivers of environmental scarcity are discussed:

1. Demand for natural resources exceeds supply: Increases in

population growth and rates of consumption will reduce the per

capita availability of a particular resource. Tensions may

develop between competing user groups when the overall

supply of key renewable resources can no longer support the

needs of the local population. Where these tensions intersect

with other issues, such as socio-economic, ethnic or religious

cleavages, they can contribute to violence.

2. Degradation of natural resources reduces supply: The

depletion or degradation of a specific resource can occur for a

number of reasons, including overuse, pollution and violent

conflict itself. For example, pollution from industrial activities,

agricultural run-off and poor management of waste can impact

water quality, leading to health risks and disease, which can act

as a source of grievance. Soils and forests can be impacted by

conflict, used to fund conflict or adversely affected simply from

conversion of one type of land use to another. Decreases in the

supply of resources can place different user groups into direct

competition and thereby lead to conflict.

3. Access to natural resources is restricted or unequal: When

one user group controls access to renewable resources to the

detriment of others, natural resource-dependent communities

are often marginalized. Violence can occur as these groups

seek greater or more equitable access to key resources.

Moreover, the struggle can become linked to recognition of

identity, status and political rights, making conflict resolution

even more difficult.

These three components represent the main causes – or drivers – of

environmental scarcity. Their role in contributing to violent conflict

can be aggravated by other influences over which local populations

have very little control. These include climate change and natural

hazards, socio-economic change, or a combination of the two:

• Vulnerability to climate change and natural hazards: Climate

change and natural hazards can increase the risk of

environmental scarcity. Climate change is expected to alter the

availability and distribution of key natural resources, while fires,

floods, earthquakes, storms and other natural hazards can

have a major and immediate impact on resource availability

and livelihoods.

• Socio-economic change: When societies and economic

systems undergo rapid socio-economic change, it is common

for the interests and needs of natural resource users to be

negatively affected. Economic development and the

introduction of new technologies or major infrastructure often

increase pressures on natural resources, triggering tension or

compounding existing conflicts.

Lastly, all of the pathways described above are filtered through

governance factors. While robust institutions, policies and processes

can help reduce the vulnerability of populations to environmental

scarcity, weak governance has the opposite effect. Governance also

plays a critical role in preventing tensions from arising between

competing user groups and states. Indeed, the way that governance

factors address increasing environmental scarcity influences the

range of livelihood response options available to different groups.

These include migration and adaptation strategies, coping and

survival strategies, or direct violent conflict.

Conflict prevention strategies

Conflict prevention refers to the set of approaches, methods and

mechanisms used to avoid, minimize and contain potential violence,

or prevent the relapse of violence in post-conflict countries. Where

natural resources are a direct source of conflict, or a contributing

factor in a larger conflict context, prevention strategies must take

into account the complex inter-relationships between environmental

causes, potential impacts and possible interventions. In most cases,

the drivers of environmental scarcity interact with existing political,

social, or economic processes, requiring a response on multiple

levels, including technical, socio-economic, political and institutional

responses. In other words, there is often no “quick fix” to the

problem. Appropriate interventions depend on the mix of drivers,

livelihood responses, existing governance structures and the level

of conflict intensity.

Three main categories of interventions that must be undertaken

by the UN and EU to successfully prevent conflicts over natural

resources are examined in this Guidance Note: early warning

and risk assessment, structural prevention (long-term strategies),

and direct prevention (short-term strategies). Each of these is

discussed below.

a) Early warning and assessment

Early warning and assessment measures attempt to identify potential

sources of conflict over natural resources before they materialize.

They consist of data collection, risk analysis, and the transmission of

information with recommendations to targeted recipients. The use of

early warning indicators and assessments to identify potential

conflict hotspots should form the basis for subsequent conflict

prevention programmes (structural or direct conflict prevention, as

described below). There are three main elements to early warning

and assessment:

• Conflict early warning: Conflict early warning refers to the set

of activities that aim to collect, collate and analyse data on

natural resources and livelihoods in order to detect and identify

the signs of an emerging crisis before it becomes violent. Early

warning can rely on qualitative or quantitative data, or a mix of

the two. Warnings are issued to decision-makers and society

when negative trends are detected in order to forestall violent

conflict, or the spreading and intensification of conflict.

• Disaster early warning: Disasters, including drought, violent

storms, earthquakes, floods, fires and tsunamis can severely

impact resource availability and livelihoods. Timely early

warning information for environmental shocks and stress can

help affected communities take preventative measures or adapt

livelihood strategies accordingly.

• Environmental risk assessments: Detailed and systematic

environmental risk assessments can identify baseline

environmental conditions together with key pressures, trends,

levels of degradation and management capacities. These

assessments should help identify potential conflict hotspots

where natural resources are becoming increasingly scarce and

livelihoods increasingly constrained.

b) Structural conflict prevention

Structural prevention consists of long-term measures that address

the underlying causes of a potential conflict and any escalating or

triggering factors. It focuses on transforming key socio-economic,

political and institutional factors that could lead to violent conflict in

the future. For natural resources, this encompasses three main types

of linked interventions:

• Reducing livelihood vulnerabilities and promoting

alternatives: Reducing livelihood vulnerabilities can take place

through economic diversification, adaptation, protection, and

emergency assistance. The sustainable livelihoods framework

is one of the available methods to analyse options and help

determine suitable interventions and support measures.

• Improving the quality and quantity of natural resources:

Improving the quality and quantity of natural resources can

draw on three types of interventions: 1) demand-side strategies

involving education and regulations to change behaviour,

coupled with more efficient technologies to reduce demand;

2) supply-side interventions often involving new infrastructure

or ecosystem restoration to increase supply; and 3) the

identification of alternatives to scarce resources.

• Strengthening NRM and participation: Strengthening NRM

can be conducted through three main types of interventions:

1) implementing legal, policy and institutional changes for

recognizing and respecting the rights of natural

resource-dependent people, and regulating human activity that

may have negative impacts on natural resources; 2) fostering

greater participation in decision-making and management by

the users; and 3) building local-level capacity for conflict

management if disputes arise.

c) Direct conflict prevention

Direct conflict prevention refers to short-term and often immediate

environmental diplomacy measures that are aimed at preventing or

containing the imminent escalation of a conflict. For conflicts over

natural resources, this includes:

• Dialogue: Engaging in dialogue can be a non-threatening entry

point for parties to a conflict as it requires little commitment or

risk and can be broken off with little warning and at minimal

political cost. Dialogue can allow a common understanding to

emerge around a shared problem, which can contribute to

building confidence between parties.

• Information-sharing: Sharing technical information on the

status of a disputed natural resource can increase the

likelihood that agreed facts guide decision-making and the

basis of the future relationships. It may also help to further

de-politicize the problem by focusing on the technical aspects

of a dispute.

• Joint assessments: Resolving differences can be facilitated by

or conducted through joint field assessments. Ideally these are

organized by impartial, independent third parties that are

acceptable to both sides. These assessments should aim to

develop a common understanding of the challenges and a

shared vision for cooperation.

• Joint management plans: Developing mechanisms for

coordinated or joint management can institutionalize

cooperation. In cases where tensions remain high, jointly

addressing a common environmental threat such as a pollution

hotspot or extensive degradation can be a useful entry point.

• Legally binding agreements: Establishing legally binding

agreements is often seen as the final step in environmental

diplomacy, as cooperation becomes formalized between

disputing parties.

• Dispute resolution support: Providing ongoing dispute

resolution support to keep the diplomatic process on track can

be a role that third parties can play. To avoid undermining

existing local institutions and structures for resolving local

conflicts, any intervention should be specifically focused,

limited and temporary, and should aim to build on and

strengthen pre-existing local capacity.

Despite the obvious complexity of the relationship between

environmental scarcity and conflict, two common themes emerge

from the study, regardless of whether one focuses on causes/drivers

or possible interventions.

First, early warning systems are essential to identify potential

problems that could eventually result in violent conflict. The ability to

detect potential conflicts early on allows for far more flexibility in

determining what preventative actions are needed.

Second, multi-stakeholder dialogue processes are crucial to

ensuring that local communities and marginalized groups are heard

and that individuals from different levels of government, civil society

and the private sector are empowered. The cases presented

throughout the paper indicate that bringing parties in conflict

together – if only for technical discussions – can build trust, foster

common identities and lead to conflict resolution. While rational

discourse cannot be considered a direct path to peacebuilding, it is

rare that conflicts are resolved in the absence of such discourse.

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