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Environmental Degradation Seen as Contributing to World Conflicts

The effects of environmental degradation have been increasingly seen as contributing to conflict in various parts of the world. The growing scarcity of natural resources as a threat to human security and political stability is the focus of an exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. For producer Valer Gergely, VOA's Jim Bertel has more on the showcase titled: Environment, Conflict and Cooperation.

Natural resources provide a living and shelter for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world and are an elementary part of survival. As those life supporting natural resources come under threat so does the personal security of millions who rely on them. Climate change, water scarcity and population growth are some of the most powerful and least understood environmental challenges.

Using the subjects of water, climate, land, forests and minerals, the exhibition shows not only the ways in which environmental degradation can lead to conflicts and new security threats, but also how environmental cooperation can contribute to security and stability.

The exhibit, assembled by the Berlin based think-tank, Adelphi Research, focuses on how man-made environmental changes affect both foreign and domestic policy. It draws a direct connection between natural resources, poverty and stability in various parts of the world, according to Adelphi Research Director Alexander Carius.

"We use examples, like impacts of climate change in terms of the increase of droughts, extreme weather events, such as floods and storms,” he explains. “We also look at the economic damage climate change has, and [how it] indirectly effects economies, especially [those of] vulnerable states."

The exhibition also demonstrates that the sustainable use of natural resources across national borders can contribute to conflict prevention and confidence building.

"Armenia and Azerbaijan, for example, still have several border disputes, mainly over Nagorno-Karabakh," says Mr. Carius.

But the European Neighborhood Policy Initiative creates a political framework to both address environmental issues and to bring neighboring countries closer to EU standards.

"Within this political framework, government agencies and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] started to initiate trans-boundary environmental projects, both water and nature protection,” Carius says. “There are some very promising examples at the moment where not those three countries [directly], but bilateral activities between Georgia and Armenia, and also between Georgia and Azerbaijan, proved to be fruitful because normally those countries, especially Armenia and Azerbaijan, don't cooperate with each other."

The exhibition displays the linkage between environment and security in Central Asia, the area of the southern provinces of the former Soviet Union. The map shows the radioactive, chemical and biological hazards, waste disposal and pollution in the region. The exploitation of two main rivers in Kazakhstan led to the reduction of the water level and the desiccation of the Aral Sea. National interests emerged after the collapse of the Soviet water allocation system. The continued use of intensive irrigation practices and environmental pressure raised tensions between ethnic groups and states

Speakers at the exhibition predict that climate change will alter our lives. Great climate pattern changes will alter available water resources, as well as the availability of usable agricultural land. A number of extreme weather events may render cities and tidal regions uninhabitable, resulting in mass migration. They believe that the traditional patterns of our lifestyle and economic behavior must change and that we have to accept the fact that we live in a global village where we all rely on each other.

The exhibition has been brought to the Woodrow Wilson Center with the support of the German Embassy, as Germany continues its efforts to take the lead in environmental issues. After Washington, D.C., the exhibition will be presented in Houston and Austin, Texas.