Climate and Conflict: El Niño’s Ability to Magnify Tensions Between Companies and Communities

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By Josh Fisher, Faculty for the Environment, Peace, and Security Certification at Columbia University and Director of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4).

The Pacific island of Papua New Guinea has a long history of conflict and grievances among local communities and extractive industries like mining and oil and gas. Perhaps the most infamous of these conflicts was sparked by the costs that the Panguna mine placed on local communities, and the benefits that never materialized. While the resulting war in Bougainville is long over, I was recently reminded how the environmental costs of mining continue to fuel grievance and tension during my recent fieldwork in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Importantly, though, I also saw that climate change has the potential to foment those tensions, by multiplying the environmental hazards associated with mining. As climate variability increases over the next decades, we have to dramatically rethink how we govern extractive industry, water resources, and environmental permitting, or else face increased conflict in many resource rich countries.

The El Niño event of 2015 brought with it one of the most severe droughts that many villages in Papua New Guinea’s highland provinces had experienced in several decades. The drought was particularly severe in Enga Province, and many villages lost their crops, their livestock, and their only means of income.

Because most of these villages lack improved water infrastructure, they depend on rainwater harvesting to meet their entire household water demands. When the rains fail to come, villagers rely on streams, springs, and rivers, and when those stop running, they have to find enough money to buy water. For places like Porgera in Enga Province, the situation in 2015 became acute. Since the 1990s, local rivers have been either concessioned for use in industrial processing at the Porgera Joint Venture (PJV) gold mine, or permitted for liquid tailings and waste release by the mine. When the rains stopped in Porgera, local communities were left with a bitter choice: drink water that might be contaminated by industrial tailings or go without.

Going without water is not a viable option for anyone, and modest household incomes combined with high prices of bottled water make purchasing water impractical for most. So, at the height of the drought there were few options outside of drinking from rivers that flow directly through the waste dumps from the mine. In the meantime, the PJV continued pumping water from mountain reservoirs to the processing plant and its gated employee housing until the reservoirs were too low to support continued operations.

While the company has a legal contract with the communities and Government of Papua New Guinea to conduct mining operations, a valid operating permit to divert freshwater and discharge tailings, and a plan to mitigate the impacts of those activities, the onset of environmental hazards like prolonged droughts are potential game changers. Reduced water availability and increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns magnify the impact of the mine on water resources. Thus the scarcity that already results from the mine’s impact on local hydrology combines with climatological events to produce water insecurity. That insecurity in turn exacerbates latent tensions and existing grievances among the many stakeholders in the area over the mine’s impacts. The result is an environmental conflict that plays out in a variety of ways, including threats of litigation, increased confrontations between mine security and surrounding communities, intra and inter clan rivalry, and increased police and military operation in the area.

In the age of the Sustainable Development Goals, water security is a top priority for governments and the international community. This is no different in Papua New Guinea, where national and provincial governments, the international donor and aide communities, and even some extractive industry operators are all grappling with the question of how to ensure that people have access to clean, reliable sources of water. But, for a country whose economy is driven by water-intensive industries – many of which have operating permits guaranteeing water rights for decades – a viable strategy for providing that access remains elusive.

Along with water security, the Sustainable Development Goals prioritize the development of strong institutions that are responsive to their citizenry and the promotion of just, peaceful and inclusive societies. The ongoing tensions between extractive industry operators and the communities that bear the costs of those operations in Papua New Guinea highlight the urgency of this goal. Until the institutions that govern environmental permitting and quality, water provisioning, revenue management and benefit sharing, and security are responsive to the full range of stakeholder needs and interests, peaceful and just society will remain distant targets.

A changing climate raises difficult new questions. Should environmental permits be reassessed in light of new climatological uncertainty and population growth? Should the State, extractive industry operators, or both, be responsible for securing the right to water for impacted communities? Should the infrastructure that brings water to industrial operations be shared in order to provide a reliable water source to surrounding communities? Should royalties and rents from these industries be reinvested into water, sanitation, and hygiene projects? If the answer is “yes” to any of these questions, the question that follows is who will bear the financial costs, and what will those costs in-turn mean for national economic development or quarterly profit and loss statements at a time when commodity prices have plummeted? Here again, the Sustainable Development Goals urge innovation and call for the development and revitalization of public-private partnerships for sustainability.

Water insecurity in the highlands of Papua New Guinea is not new. However, the El Niño event of 2015 brought to light some of the impacts that climate change will continue to have on local communities. More than this, however, it showed us that the old rules of the game may no longer apply, and that we may soon be forced to rethink how we strike the economic development/environmental impact/community relations balance in the extractive industries. With the advent of the newly agreed Sustainable Development Goals, we have a call to action and innovation to spur us ahead.