Environmental securityis a much-debated concept that is yet to be integrated completely with security studies due to theoretical, analytical, methodological and contextual disagreements over the interconnectedness between environmental issues and security. Though environmental security is a border-less issue that affects everyone across the globe, the perspectives on the concept are contextual and shifting. With the multiplicity inunderstanding on how environmental issues (particularly disruption) affect both human and national security, the mechanisms that drive environmental governance in the particular settings also vary. Against this background, the half-day seminar held at Leiden University on June 12, 2015, strived to generate a debate on notions of environmental security, conflict and governance through diverse prisms. An attempt was made at bridging the yawning gap between the varied perspectives by addressing the conceptual hurdles in securitising environment in different contexts and by using specific case studies to illustrate the interconnectedness between environmental change/disruption and security.


The seminar aimed to bring out the ‘area studies’ specific analysis on environmental security, conflict and governance involving sociology, political science, international relations, geography and other disciplines that cater to the demands of the study on these pertinent issues. The four fundamental questions that were addressed during the seminar include:


  1. Should the environment be securitised and if yes, what should be the framework for securitisation of environment taking into consideration regional sensibilities/realities?
  2. How should the issues surrounding environmental conflict and peace-building be framed?
  3. What roles should be assigned to state and non-state actors (including the civil society) in environmental decision-making? (For instance, should the military have a role at all in environmental governance?)
  4. How can the regional perspectives on environmental security, conflict and governance be integrated within the global environmental governance order and/or is there at all a need to do this?


Summary of the Proceedings


The place of the ‘environment’ in security studies has been acknowledged by the security community largely, but still the debate surrounding its perception is ensuing. Just as security studies is a broad field of study that accommodates a wide range of theoretical perspectives, the concept of environmental security, on account of its contested status, could be studied through different perspectives. Although the awareness about issues related to environmental security has existed for ages, the concept itself began to evolve only in the 1960s and took shape in the 1980s and thereafter. The evolution of environmental security studies has been more of a critical exercise – to expand security studies – as well as an analytical exercise – to look at the security implications of environmental issues.


Different schools in security studies such as the Copenhagen School, Welsh School and the Risk School have explored environmental security and its dimensions and implications. However, none of them have withstood criticism in terms of their universality and clarity (conceptual) – to the extent that all these interpretations have been labelled Euro-Centric and mostly creating a conceptual muddle. From a mere conceptual debate in the early 1980s about how environment and security are linked, to exploration of empirical studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s to establish the link by tracing the process of how changes in environment trigger security impacts, to the use of a broad range of social science methodology in mid-1990s to combine the objectives of the first two generations and thereafter, environmental security research has withstood heavy criticism throughout and come a long way. Although it has been accepted more or less as a security issue, what is still being debated and contested is its interpretation and the prism through which it is securitised at various levels – global, regional, state and sub-state. According to Jon Barnett, based on the entity to be secured, major source of risk and the scale of concern, environmental security could be interpreted in different ways. For instance, how security itself is interpreted (national security or human security etc.) redefines the way environmental security is understood and analysed.


However, the contestation of concepts such as environmental security and governance would never cease. The questions of what is the security threat/risk and what needs to be protected make this field highly vulnerable to criticism and debate. The environment-conflict thesis, which is an integral part of environmental security studies, is even more problematic. The majority of literature talks about how environmental scarcity leads to violent conflict. It was argued that although there are links between the two in many cases, one cannot deny the fact that conflict could also lead to environmental scarcity/degradation. Therefore, the causal pathways are questionable both empirically and theoretically. For environmental security to be accepted as an uncontested and useful concept, it needs to clarify – who is the carrier of security in such a context – considering the fact that most of the times, the carrier is usually the perpetrator as well. Another way of interpreting environmental security was identified as linking environmental degradation or disruption to structural violence so that instead of freedom from fear, freedom from want becomes its core. Nevertheless, this has also been a fruitless effort since calculation of structural violence for various types of environmental conditions is a difficult task. 


The concept of governance was also problematized, taking the state-centric approach embedded within it into account.The growing influence of globalisation and non-governmental organisations, emergence of failed and fragile states, and creation of supranational, macro-regional and regional organisations were highlighted in order to emphasise the diminishing role of states. Here again, issues such as scope, scale and context of governance make it more complex. For instance, in strong states one presumes that there is a government and therefore governance, but in weak states one expects disorder, no government and no governance to speak of. Hence, governance may have several morphologies and these have to be specified before any specific viewpoints with respect to its nexus with the natural environment can be developed.


At the international policy level too, securitisation of the environment, especially climate change and related issues like climate migration were examined. The UN Security Council (UNSC) debate on security implications of climate change was divided between differing needs of different countries – some calling for strong greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation measures while others demanding more finances for adaptation. This move was vehemently opposed by countries such as India that felt this was being used as a pressure tactic to force them to adopt mitigation commitments in the post-Kyoto arrangement or as a diversionary tactic by the industrialised countries to evade stronger commitments by introducing new issues. The UNSC debate portrayed climate migration  as perhaps the biggest threat that humankind could face and is already facing in some parts of the world – specifying ‘environmental refugees’, ‘unprecedented migration’, ‘population movements’, ‘humanitarian crises’ and so on.


For the UK (that introduced the issue in the UNSC in 2007), climate migration was an issue that could strike a chord with both the domestic audience and the international community as it was a “visible thing” and a “political thing” that the electorate would care about. The UK’s strategy to sell this logic failed in many cases especially among one of its key audiences, India. For India, it is an extraordinary measure to adopt legally binding emissions reduction commitments. Even when it comes to migration from Bangladesh, India considers it a socio-economic issue and not an environmental one (far from climate change). In fact, migration is also used as an adaptation mechanism in Bangladesh. This is a classic example of how contexts play out in the game of securitisation of the environment. ‘How’, ‘where’ and ‘why’ are pertinent to the process of securitisation, in which one cannot really control the audience. Fear-mongering and alarmist views can be counter-productive and weaken or even fail securitising moves. In India, the securitisation move could work if ‘development’ (part of the governance agenda) and ‘energy’ are integrated with it. Among the policy community in India, it is commonly believed that “without development, environment would disappear anyway.”


With respect to the alarmist views that pervade this field, the discourse on ‘water wars’ formed a part of the discussion. From ‘climate war’ in Bosnia and Sudan to ‘climate disaster’ in New Orleans to ‘climate revolution’ in the Middle East, every single conflict is being connected to climate change presently. On the one hand, cases such as the emergence of the Islamic State, the Syrian conflict and conflict in Yemen are being linked to water scarcity; on the other, it is also being contended that although water has been a factor in wars many times in history, no international water war has yet occurred despite predictions in much of the literature on environmental security. Interestingly, wars are not fought over water.It is just a “target”, “unintended victim” or an “instrument of war.” Water scarcity has been associated with several conflicts in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. But it could be argued that it is not always scarcity that breeds conflict; it could also emerge due to abundance of resources. Moreover, with many technological fixes (such as desalination, iceberg towing) and better decision-making (demand management, better data collection), problems of water scarcity could be addressed.


The food-water-energy-climate security nexus brings to light several loopholes in how environmental security is perceived and acted upon in policy. For example, dams are regarded as a viable option to promote green economy. However, they are associated with large-scale displacement, human rights violations and structural violence (affecting water and food security) too. They are also political and economic tools used by states to protect or promote their interest – such as Turkey’s Ilusu Dam as a buffer against terrorism, Egypt’s Toshka channel to establish future claims on the waters of River Nile and possibly land too, Afghanistan’s dams for its war on drugs (as an alternative to growing poppies), and Brazil’s dams for climate adaptation among others. There are also cases of cooperation such as the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan and the agreement between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.


The role of the military in environmental security is even more contested and much less accepted in many quarters. While the debate on the military dimensions has shifted to how it could positively contribute to environmental protection and conservation, one simply cannot overlook the direct impacts of the military on the environment – pollution, destruction, over-utilisation and fragmentation. What the military needs to recognise is that “there cannot be security without ecological security” and “no stability without sustainability.” Clean water, food and shelter are only some of the ecosystem products and services on which human existence depends. In a conflict-torn region, the military needs to pay extra attention to restoration of these products and services for long-term stability during peace-building. This would be more difficult if environmental matters were ignored during the conflict – leading to the destruction of the ecosystems. The military needs to adopt the ecosystem approach that consists of three sub-systems – resource base (physical system), resource management (institutional system) and resource use (socio-economic system). Appropriate assessment of these three factors is critical for any peace-keeping or peace-building missions. The case study of the NATO forces in Afghanistan was used to explain the dilemmas faced by the military in this context. For example, exploitation of poppy cultivation by the Taliban to fund its activities led to the NATO forces destroying the poppy fields, thus taking away many people’s livelihoods, condemning them to poverty and famine and creating enemies. Instead of razing the poppy fields, the focus should be on providing alternatives (crops) using and managing the available resource base, while taking sufficient environmental precaution.


The role of the military in pushing the agenda on environmental security, especially in countries such as the US and the UK is well-known. The military’s objectives are to safeguard human security in the wake of increasing signs of climate change – to avoid the destabilizing of nations, human suffering and loss of development. The implications of climate change for the defence sector have been documented and highlighted even in the last two Quadrennial Defense Reviews(QDR) of the US. The jump from climate change as a human security threat to a national security one is a natural one – since the state cannot necessarily be separated from its people in all scenarios. With climate change finding its place in a number of security documents and entering the domain of foreign policy too, there is more optimism on the front of climate action. Organisations such as the Institute for Environmental Security (IES) and the Global Military Council on Climate Change within the IES endeavour to build support for the identified cause.




The four questions put forth in the beginning were answered in different ways by each speaker at the seminar. To the question of whether the environment should be securitised in the first place, it was accepted essentially that it is a security issue but the framework for the securitisation process cannot be universal and has to break the barriers of state-centrism. If seen through the prism of human security, it is likely to have more acceptability. Not just regionally, perspectives vary even at the national and sub-national levels, making it difficult to have one single framework for securitising the environment, which is why many securitising moves have failed and rather polarised the debate further. Moreover, ‘alarmist’ interpretations of environmental security and fear-mongering with regard to climate migration, humanitarian crises and other such scenarios tend to debunk the purpose of securitisation of the environment. At the same time, it also prepares the international community for the uncertain times ahead. The more the uncertainties, the more the risks involved and therefore, the more one should be prepared – taking preventive or pre-emptive actions.


To the question of environment-conflict thesis and peace-building, the former found far less approval than the latter, so much so that most speakers tended to negate the former citing the lack of empirical evidence and the counter-productive nature of fear appeals. Those who affirmed the link between environmental degradation and conflict were inclined to consider the environment or climate or resource as one of many factors in the conflict, rendering it a threat multiplier, rather than a direct cause for the conflict. When it comes to peace-building, the importance of taking environmental factors into consideration in a post-conflict reconstruction scenario as well as environmental cooperation leading to peace-building (political and military) between nations formed the fulcrum of the deliberation.


To the question of the roles of state and non-state actors in environmental decision-making, emphasis was laid on going beyond the state as the state itself can at times be the destructor of the environment. Besides, environmental governance also needs to be re-examined and reinterpreted with international boundaries and state institutions being undermined by many developments such as globalisation and so on. In terms of building resilience, the role of the civil society or social communities becomes critical; but this does not mean that the state could run away from its responsibilities towards supporting the population adapt to changing climate or environment. The role of the military, one of the state agencies, is pertinent in not only post-conflict situations (building resilience) but also during the conflict and before a conflict erupts. Its responsibility in terms of avoiding collateral damage, especially disruption of ecosystem products and services should take the front seat in order to strengthen the process of peace-keeping and peace-building.


To the fourth question of whether there is a need and how to integrate regional perspectives on environmental security, conflict and governance with the global environmental governance order, one could come to the conclusion that essentially this is a difficult task since the realities of each region are different from that of the others. However, it could also be acknowledged that unless these regional, national and local perspectives are integrated with the global order, the latter cannot sustain itself and will be fragmented and disharmonious as always. The question of what is good for the global governance order (if fragmentation is better or more feasible) can be answered through another seminar in the future.


[The main organiser of the seminar, Dhanasree Jayaram, acknowledges the support of Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS) and Cosmopolis, Leiden University in organising it. She is also grateful to Manipal University – Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG) and the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations – for providing academic space to conduct research in the field of environmental security.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.