The international day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict will be observed worldwide tomorrow, with the theme being of special significance to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of a devastating 30-year civil war.
In a statement to mark the occasion, the United Nations points out that though the world has generally counted its war casualties in terms of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, destroyed cities and livelihoods, the environment has often remained the unpublicised victim of war. Water wells have been polluted, crops torched, forests cut down, soils poisoned, and animals killed to gain military advantage.
Furthermore, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has found that over the past 60 years, at least 40 per cent of internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether high-value resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil, or scarce resources such as fertile land and water. Conflicts involving natural resources have also been found to be twice as likely to relapse.
After the General Assembly declared the observance of this day in 2001, the UN says it gives much importance to ensuring that action on the environment is part of conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peace building strategies - because there can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed.
On May 27 this year, the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a resolution which recognised the role of healthy ecosystems and sustainably-managed resources in reducing the risk of armed conflict, and reaffirmed its strong commitment to the full implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals listed in General Assembly resolution entitled “transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.”
The UN’s outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in a message says that to achieve the vision of the 2030 sustainable goals for a healthy planet, we need to recognise that we have a duty of care towards the environment in peacetime and during war. Poor governance of the environment and natural resources can contribute to the outbreak of conflict. It can fuel and finance existing conflicts and it can increase the risk of relapse. Conversely, there are many examples of natural resources serving as catalysts for peaceful cooperation, confidence-building and poverty reduction.
In Sri Lanka, it is significant that President Maithripala Sirisena who is the Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces is also the Minister in-charge of environmental affairs. At the Presidential election on January 8 last year, Mr. Sirisena was the common candidate of some 40 political parties or civic action groups, while it is widely recognised that he received about 90 per cent of the votes of the minority communities. Fully aware that his mandate was mainly for reconciliation and lasting peace through interracial and inter-religious dialogue and unity in diversity, the President has pledged the national government would ensure that never again would there be a war or armed conflict because of religious or racial divisions.
The President and the national government during the past two years have given top priority to environmental issues and an equitable distribution of natural resources including water. Recently, the Moragahakanda project was streamlined to take Mahaweli water to the North and East also. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the latest five-year sustainable and eco-friendly development strategy outlined recently, pledged that equal facilities for good healthcare, quality education and productive or creative job opportunities would be provided to all provinces including the North and East, this will be part of a broader strategy not just for the devolution of power which is mainly for politicians but also for the devolution of essential resources which will go directly to the people in the grassroots.