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The Metric

Aug 12, 2015

The Local Origins of Environmental Conflict

National and international conflicts often have their roots in local drivers of discontent, and the role of environmental issues in sparking local tensions is becoming more prominent. The Atlas of Environmental Justice provides insights as to where and how local environmental issues can turn into larger conflicts.
Protesters marching through Istiklal Street in Taksim Square during the Gezi Park protests. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Mstyslav Chernov.

The protests had begun as a sit-in by a handful of people to protect Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s only green spaces, from becoming a shopping mall. By the time the tear gas wafted over Taksim Square, the list of grievances among thousands of people who had gathered had escalated into wider anti-government protests. From Istanbul, the demonstrations over Gezi Park radiated into nation-wide protests against Prime Minister Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian regime. 

As is the case with the Gezi Park demonstrations, when local movements grow, the initial causes can often be drowned out by broader complaints. Just as Gezi Park was the original site of Turkey’s protests, environmental issues are often at the heart of political movements. The Atlas of Environmental Justice endeavors to trace where events that are damaging to the environment, like the proposed Gezi Park demolition, are causing social unrest.

An outcome of the Environmental Justice Organization’s Liability and Trade project, which supports work in the field of environmental law, the Atlas aims to be a resource for education, advocacy, and networking, to raise awareness about environmental conflicts around the world. Though large scale environmental issues like climate change and air pollution already loom large in the public and policymakers’ minds, local conflicts like those documented by the Atlas do not receive much recognition. Tools to track them are still largely in their incipience. With over 1,500 noted cases, the map acts as a useful tool to not only track current local conflicts, but to also indicate places where environmental issues may be correlated to larger conflict.

That is among the map’s most powerful offerings. Considering how a sit-in to protect a park in Istanbul led to national protests in 2013, one can begin to understand the potential for local environmental issues to escalate into national conflict. Places where such phenomena may occur are marked on the map by a spattering of colored dots that signify a variety of environmental disputes. Several blue ones mark Northern India on the Atlas, representing issues around water management. The region’s water management concerns are not breaking news. However, as water scarcity is exacerbated by climate change and population pressure, it is bound to escalate.

Water Scarcity in India

Photo from Flickr by Subro Sengupta.

Northern India is characterized by extremely high water stress. Its groundwater depletion is greater than anywhere else on Earth. With groundwater making up 85% of drinking water supplies in India, this is not of small consequence.

Groundwater is being depleted at a rate of 54 cubic kilometers each year in India, exacerbated by incessant drilling of wells to accommodate the extensive irrigation system in the region. Farmers have drilled 21 million wells to pump groundwater. And since 2003, conflict has stemmed from a Coca-Cola plant in Jaipur, India. Locals in 50 villages in the district have accused the plant of severely reducing groundwater levels and crippling agricultural output, upon which they are entirely dependent. 

Until 2000, water levels were decreasing at a rate of about two feet per year. Since the plant’s opening, though, this rate has increased to almost nine feet. Dispute remains about whether this can actually be attributed to Coca-Cola or if it is a result of increased extraction for agricultural use, but to the locals, Coca-Cola is the problem. Fearful for their livelihoods, thousands of residents have taken to protesting and developing a sustained campaign made up of 32 committees to close down the plant. Years later, there is still no clear resolution in sight. 

International stressors

As water becomes an increasingly dwindling resource in the region, competition for it is only growing, leading to greater tensions on the already stressed relationship between India and Pakistan. India has been pursuing hydropower as an alternative source of energy in recent years, constructing dams extensively in its Himalayan river system to double its hydropower capacity and account for 6% of its national energy needs. 292 dams are planned for construction in this area. With many of these rivers also being a source of water for Pakistan, especially for agricultural purposes, these dams have been met with dispute

Pakistan fears that India will use the dams to control and limit the flow of water to its already water-stressed farmers and putting severe pressure on Pakistani livelihoods. One blue dot on the Atlas marks the Wullar barrage-Tubul project in India, which Pakistan and India have been disputing for over thirty years. Another indicates the Kishanganga Hydro Electric Power Project. Trying to build its own dam on the same river, the Pakistani government was outraged and appealed to an international court. As problems continue to accumulate and are exacerbated by decreased flow of the Himalayan rivers due to glacial melting, population growth, and greater water demands, water is poised to become a major source of contention and conflict between the two rivals.

Local tensions

Residents and travelers on a damaged road by the Alaknanda River, where the Srinagar Hydro Electric Project is taking place, during the June 2013 floods. Photo credit to AFP Photo/Indian Army. 

 India’s dam-building has also sparked local conflict. In the northern state of Uttarakhand, construction of dams is estimated to affect up to two million people. Ongoing opposition to the Srinagar Hydro Electric Project led to protestors taking to the streets to voice their discontent about a dam that posed flooding and unstable terrain risks for the surrounding inhabitants. Multiple mishaps during its construction led to debris submerging surrounding houses and fields. And in June 2013, a decision to open the dam gates during heavy flooding in the region resulted in villages being submerged in at least ten feet of muck. Several protests against other dams in Uttarakhand have led to hunger strikes, along with demonstrations and government petitions. Other northeastern states, including Himachal Pradesh, have also seen mobilization. 

Concerns that water scarcity and groundwater depletion will lead to conflict stretch far beyond India. Recent findings by the NASA’s GRACE satellites show that a majority of the world’s largest aquifer systems are either stressed or overstressed. This includes the major groundwater deposits across the planet’s midsection, where agricultural production is centered. From Western Asia and Russia, to Eastern Africa, to the High Plains of the United States, the groundwater that is pumped out of the ground, largely for food production, is disappearing. The United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report “Global Water Security” determined that water problems “contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure.” 

The Atlas of Environmental Justice isn’t a sure-fire way of predicting where larger conflicts might ignite. But just as the Gezi Park protests shed light on the Turkish government’s stance on public space, the potential of local conflicts to draw out policy performance on water scarcity, climate change, and public health issues, among others, is becoming more salient. The discontent that eventually leads to greater conflict often starts with local sparks.