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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 00:17 GMT 01:17 UK
Environment 'can avert conflicts'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in Jeju, Korea

Soldier, AP
Unep wants to unravel the links between conflict and environment
A UN project launched several years ago to try to defuse potential conflicts has begun to build on its successes.

The project, developed by the UN's Environment Programme, tries to tackle environmental threats before they can push neighbouring states into war.

After years of delicate negotiations, Unep recently brokered a treaty aimed at protecting the fragile Caspian Sea.

Now it says many countries have learnt to trust it and to work much faster in trying to resolve their differences.

The project is called the Env/Sec Initiative: Enhancing Environment and Security in South-Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

There' so much actual work to do on the ground, an absolutely desperate need to collect and analyse data
Frits Schlingemann, Unep Europe representative
It is the work of Unep's regional office for Europe, together with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the UN Development Programme.

Initiative boosted

The initiative has received a boost here at the annual meeting of Unep's governing council, which has formally asked the organisation to try to unravel the links between conflict and the environment.

Although many people feel intuitively that worsening environmental conditions must increase tension and heighten the risk of violence, no-one can say what pushes a society over the brink.

So Unep will be studying the interplay of factors like mass migration, land degradation and water pollution in triggering breakdown.

Frits Schlingemann, Unep's Europe representative, told BBC News Online: "The environment is now moving into the mainstream of foreign policy.

"We work with other partners wherever we can, like trades unions and the World Council of Churches, and now we are working increasingly with ministries of foreign affairs.

"We get politicians and the people affected to tell us what they think the future security risks are, the ones with an environmental dimension. In central Asia it's usually water and waste, in Europe it's often dangerous old mine workings close to rivers near national frontiers."

There is a growing queue of countries and agencies willing to fund the work, allowing the project to look forward to a budget of almost $1m, something Mr Schlingemann describes as "enough to chew on".

He says: "Unep is a catalyst. This isn't big, but it can show people a new way of tackling their problems." The project is now branching out and has begun work in the southern Caucasus.

There it hopes to be able to repeat the success Unep had in helping the five Caspian states - Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan - to reach agreement on protecting their shared environment.

Mr Schlingemann says: "There's so much actual work to do on the ground, an absolutely desperate need to collect and analyse data.

"There's so much we do not know. I was flabbergasted to find that when someone says 80% of the Caspian's pollution comes down the Volga and someone else challenges it, there appears to be so little information that we just can't say.

"Env/Sec can help to fill these gaps in our knowledge and so provide a solid basis for cooperation and peaceful coexistence."

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