7N – Effects of environmental stress on people

Supporting article N: Environmental Stress: Displacing more people than what wars ever did in Uganda. The terrible plight of African communities reliant on ecosystem recourses and the possible steps one could take to avert this looming human catastrophic tragedy worldwide.


By: the Village Volunteers:

Conflict from Environmental Stress: The New Leading Cause of Human Conflict

Throughout history, humanity has treaded an endless and dangerous string of
conflict. Wars have been fought over religion and over ideology. There have
been territorial wars, colonial wars, wars of supremacy and more recently the
War against Terror. Because of their instantaneous display of grave human loss
and wastage such wars have been known to lead to great human suffering,
deaths and millions of refugees. However, more recently war as the primary
cause of conflict and catastrophic human suffering has been overtaken by a new
cause, environmental stress.

Environmental stress results from a gradual decline of the capacity of natural
resources to continuously meet the ever-expanding human needs and
aspirations of a given society. Consequently the natural resource backstop
suddenly but more often gradually collapses leading to tragic human conflict.
Tragedy from environment stress describes the remorseless working of new
disease vector ranges, droughts, floods, climate change, tsunamis, hurricanes
(such as Katrina) and the complementary resource wars that derail human
progress and ultimate happiness. Environmental stress alone rarely leads directly
to conflict. It usually contributes indirectly to conditions – political, social or
economic – in society, which result in or exacerbate conflict (DFID, 2000)
However, environmental stress can easily escalate into violence.

Darfur is a generally dry area with a few moist valleys where certain arable Sudanese
communities stay. Historically, the majority of the population was generally
nomadic. However, recently climate change meant that total rainfall receipts were
less and more unpredictable, this threw the centuries-long tradition of
transhumance into chaos. The nomads chose to settle in the moist valleys
alongside arable communities, but the land would not accommodate them all,
more so with their high-prized large stocks of livestock, conflict broke out and
now in less than 10 years, 300,000 human lives have been lost directly due to
this conflict. Another compelling example is in Madagascar, an island nation off the cost of East Africa, with its natural resources in ruin, it is too broke to purchase the
essentials from elsewhere. In Antananrivo, the capital city, tourists are told if they
go out at night, they will be mugged and are likely to be killed. The streets at
night are owned not by bad people, but simply by hungry ones fighting Darwin’s
age old war; survival for the fittest (Torne, 2004).

In its annual report, the Red Cross estimates that 1998 was the first year in which
the number of refugees from natural disasters exceeded those displaced by war
(DFID, 2000). The situation has deteriorated further that today, as Badawi (2006)
notes; there are twice as many refugees from environmental stress as from war
around the world. She adds that the United Nations estimates 65 million people
escaping from Africa to Europe annually due to environmental destruction.
Famines have tripled in Africa since 1980 and extreme drought will reduce
agricultural production by one third (⅓) below what the world needs. By 2025,
two out of every three persons on earth will live in places or countries without
adequate water (DFID, 2000). Evidence that environmental stress leads to more
conflict than war is overwhelming.

Ever wondered why most conflict is in Africa? Poor people are more vulnerable
to the effects of environmental stress leading to conflict. The number of natural
catastrophes has tripled when compared with the 1960s, while the rate of
economic losses associated with them has increased by a factor of nine during
the same period (DFID, 2000) A World Bank study of linkages between rapid population growth, agricultural stagnation and environmental stress in sub-Saharan Africa shows that these phenomena are mutually reinforcing. Rapid population growth is the principle
exogenous factor, which has stimulated increase in environmental stress
contributing to agricultural stagnation relative to population size (Jeffrey, et., al,
1992). Uganda for example is expected to have 56 million people by 2025, up
from the current 28 million (UBoS, 2002)1; this population will be the same as
today’s British population, a country with similar landmass. But will Uganda have
achieved the equivalent level of prosperity in the next 18 years? The obvious
outcome of such population outbursts is conflict of catastrophic proportions as
millions scramble for the finite yet diminishing natural resources.

This is bound to happen because in Uganda, like in all other African countries,
population growth has been such that Africans have been unable to adapt their
traditional agricultural land-use, wood use and other livelihood practices fast
enough to respond to the pressure of more people (Jeffery et., al, 1992) on the
fixed stock of natural resources. For instance by 2025, Uganda is predicted to
have lost 70% of its current woody biomass, which provides for over 90% of all
current national energy needs (Pomeroy, 2004). In short, 56 million persons in
Uganda by 2025 will share or conflict over only 30% of the current woodbiomass.
There is bound to be tragic conflict. This prediction is supported by factual evidence of historical population data. For instance in only 56 years (between 1948 and 2002) Uganda’s population grew from a mere 5 million persons to 24.4 people. Midway this century (2050) Uganda’s population is predicted to be 130 million persons.

What then can we do to avert this looming human catastrophic tragedy caused
by environmental stress? First we should acknowledge that corrective action now
is much cheaper than action 10 –15 years away. It is urgent that we adopt a
three pronged approach: enhancing livelihoods; reducing environmental risk and
reducing human vulnerability to environmental stress.

Enhancing livelihoods
Poor people often depend heavily on the productivity and environmental services
of ecosystems and natural resources for as much as 30% – 50% of their total
income (World Bank, 2004). As availability and quality of these resources
decline, these livelihoods are threatened – poverty reduction efforts need to
support communities to sustainably manage lands, water and forests to prevent
conflict from environmental stress.

Reducing environmental risks
Environmental factors are responsible for almost a quarter of all diseases in
developing nations. Achieving the millennium development goal on health will not
be possible without attending to the underlying environmental causes of disease
burden in poor communities

Reducing poor peoples’ vulnerability to environmental stress
Millions of poor people are vulnerable to natural disasters and environmental
hazards. Responsible growth requires that nations work towards establishing
systems such as early warning, monitoring systems and contingency evacuation
plans for the most vulnerable communities displaced in marginal areas by socioeconomic circumstances.

The above three pronged approach can be supplemented with national efforts.
These include putting people at the center, especially poor people, securing highlevel
political commitment and an influential lead institution, orienting the
environment strategy to focus on process and outcome, building country/local
ownership, building on existing environmental strategies and processes, adopting
an integrated approach of economic, social and environmental dimensions,
ensuring effective monitoring, learning and improvement, setting targets and
priorities as well as strengthening capacity.

Environmental stress is a jigsaw puzzle; as population increases and human
aspirations, needs and wants indefinitely expand, new wars will be fought and
catastrophic conflict is bound to occur as the increasing billions of people war
over the finite water, land, forests and clear air. We must act now to avert the
looming human tragedy from environmental stress through enhancing
livelihoods, reducing environmental risks and alleviating peoples’ vulnerability.
Billions of poor people are on the frontlines of conflict from environmental stress
and they should be the first beneficiaries of corrective action. This approach is in
line with the global efforts of Millennium Development Goals.

By Ddamulira Robert,
Executive Director
Practicing Environmental Managers’ Organization (PEMO),
P. O. Box 8957, Kampala
Mob Kampala: +256712582723
US: 3014605505
Village Volunteers
5100 S. Dawson St. Suite 105 • Seattle, WA 98118
206.709.1404 • info@villagevolunteers.org