By Wim Zwijnenburg
When the dust settles after wars and armed conflicts, people are eager to rebuild their lives and livelihoods in the wake of the devastation wrought upon their country. Often one issue is largely absent in post-conflict reconstruction and development planning: addressing conflict-linked destruction of the environment.
Not only is the environment a "silent victim of armed conflict," people often overlook it, despite the huge environmental damage conflicts cause with impacts that echo long into the future. Conflict pollution, land degradation, over-exploitation of natural resources, and weak environmental governance have direct and long-term consequences for communities and directly impact climate-resilience capacities.
Protecting the future of humanity and our planet requires fast, bold, and global action, even in conflict-affected and rebuilding communities. With this in mind, governments, UN bodies, international organizations, and environmental experts have been developing ideas and methods to address a broad range of environmental and climate problems through the concept of nature-based solutions (NbS).
The International Union for Conservation of Nature defines them as "actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits." They are considered key to countering the devastating impacts of pollution, resource extraction, and the already tangible effects of the global climate crisis. These solutions can help solve a broad range of environmental challenges facing the planet. Adding both practical and mainstreamed nature-based solutions throughout policy and response frameworks is critical if environmental resilience and restoration are to counter destruction of biodiversity and mitigate the impacts of natural hazards and climate-induced risks.
Nature-based solutions lie naturally at the core of "Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)," the theme of the upcoming Fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) that is set to convene virtually on Feb. 22. Such solutions should be central in this year's discussions, particularly in regard to protection of the environment in armed conflict.
Unfortunately, the vital theme of conflict-linked environmental damage has been largely absent in the preparatory work for UNEA-5, with exemptions from conflict-affected states in West Asia calling for actions, and Europe acknowledging the impact conflict has on the environment. Previous UNEA resolutions have helped to push international legal discussions on this topic, and to address conflict pollution, which boosted remediation work in Iraq. Yet UNEA-5 could be missing a key opportunity for the international community to move forward on developing a constructive approach to reduce conflict-caused environmental damage at a critical time of need.
While the International Law Commission's (ILC) Draft Principles and the International Committee of the Red Cross' (ICRC) updated Military Guidelines on environmental protection in conflict represent small steps in creating the legal process, a clear framework or mechanism to guide and assist international efforts for clean-up, remediation, and restoration of conflict-caused environmental damage is still missing.
The harsh reality is that wars are still being fought. People and the planet continue to suffer the consequences of politicians' and military commanders' decisions. In that vein, the international community must work to limit the acute and long-term environmental impacts of wars. Nature-based solutions can be a constructive part of these efforts to prevent, mitigate, minimize, and remediate. Not only would they support environmental restoration efforts that better protect civilians; addressing the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts, including by using NbS, is also elementary in building resilience to the compounding effects of global warming in conflict-affected states.
Part of these solutions will be new. People have already applied others in natural disaster settings (e.g., eco-system-based disaster risk reduction). Meanwhile, unique situations will require a case-by-case assessment and response. For example, customized solutions will be needed to address the industrial legacy pollution in eastern Ukraine's Donbas, damaged oil facilities in Syria, and widescale water problems driven by climate and conflict in Yemen.
Solutions for the Entire Conflict Cycle
Throughout the cycle of conflicts, there is ample room to adopt nature-based solutions. For example, for humanitarian operations, clean-energy solutions can help minimize the carbon footprints of displaced people and conflict-affected communities, reducing unsustainable coping mechanisms that threaten both their health and environment.
Simple steps, such as optimizing a camp setting can limit the impact of natural hazards to prevent worse living conditions. In post-conflict settings, clearance from weapon contamination and land-release can include nature-based solutions. And naturally occurring bacteria from soil can be used to deal with conflict pollution from oil spills and clean up contaminated land. Cleaning up rubble and debris from damaged towns and cities in environmentally sustainable ways and green reconstruction efforts are essential in post-conflict urban environments. We can better protect wildlife and biodiversity with community-based engagement, capacity building, and awareness raising, by supporting local groups and creating international legal frameworks. Furthermore, conflict-driven deforestation and natural resource exploitation have also benefited from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification's Peace Forest initiative to promote land restoration and peacebuilding.
Environment's Role in Post-conflict Reconstruction
These are just a few examples that illustrate the potential for NbS to contribute to sustainable development and peace by protecting the environment and thereby civilian lives and livelihoods in conflict-affected countries. In order to make the most of the opportunities ahead, first, we must recognize and prioritize the importance of the environment in post-conflict reconstruction work. To optimize efforts, the international community should take steps to improve identification and monitoring of risks through increased and coordinated UN and civil society engagement during conflicts. These actions will ensure that acute needs are prioritized over more long-term responses to conflict-pollution and degraded ecosystems.
Finally, depending on relevant authorities and capacity, the international community must be willing to prioritize sustainable development and peace by demonstrating strong political will and contributing the necessary funding to address specific environmental damage and customized NsBs for conflict-linked environmental damage.
Though nature-based solutions hold much potential to address and prevent conflict-linked environmental damage, they are meant to be just one instrument in a larger policy toolbox. Security risks and short windows of opportunities to act, for example on chemical incidents, and other prevailing humanitarian needs will likely limit the applicability of NbS in specific scenarios. Moreover, other preventive measures, such as mainstreaming environmental policies in humanitarian response and peace operations, may serve as complementary or better-suited substitutes in specific contexts. Yet all serve as instruments available to strengthen environmental protection.
The responsibility for damage to the environment mainly lies with states and armed groups, but both warring parties and the international community writ large must take all feasible steps to prevent and minimize environmental damage throughout all phases of the conflict lifecycle.
UN Member States can take an important first step by affirming their commitment to the broader Environment, Peace and Security Agenda, and critical tools like nature-based solutions, when discussions open at UNEA-5 this month.