Stewardship never more vital

(As published by the Otago Daily Times on August 25, 2017)

It is important to regard  last week’s water advisory in  Dunedin as more than just a temporary problem resulting from an isolated case of contamination.  Advising citizens  their public source of freshwater is unfit for consumption and sanitation relates to a broader trend that is not exclusive to New Zealand, which has changed the way in which individuals and groups interact with water.

The implications of a water advisory transcends its immediate health concerns:  To regard public water as being potentially detrimental could lead to an erosion of the public’s trust over its safety.  Should this distrust prevail, it could lead to the proliferation of alternative water procurement solutions, which normally take the form of market-based, for-profit water provision.

This is indeed the case in several countries of Central and South America (and arguably elsewhere), where poor municipal water distribution has created a demand for privatised water services, and helped to increase demands for bottled water products.  Discontent, and even violent conflict, has emerged as a result of the commercialisation and/or privatisation of water.  In these cases, normalising a belief that public water services are substandard has produced a scenario in which unnecessary industries and practices have been allowed to thrive, leaving significant economic and social inequalities, as well as environmental degradation, along the way.

Having inadequacies in relation to water access and quality in an OECD country like New Zealand, however, is inexcusable.  New Zealand is not only one of the most water-rich countries in the world; it is also a country with very low population densities, which in theory, should allow for unhindered access to safe fresh water in both rural and urban settings.  Yet patterns of natural resource exploitation and export-driven economic planning continue to lead New Zealand through a path where fears of water insufficiency are commonplace.

According to New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment, the region of Canterbury accounts for roughly 73% of the country’s groundwater, but even under such conditions of abundance,  scepticism over the distribution and durability of said resources continues to be a matter of concern for citizens.

That conflict over water can emanate in a place like New Zealand is something that normally eludes researchers interested in the environmental causes of conflict.   Yet, popular uproar in 2016 over the the City of Ashburton’s decision to approve a resource consent for water bottling beckons revising how conflict over water can emerge in countries like New Zealand.

New Zealand’s authorities must approach the water question with surgical care.  We live in a global economic and political environment that encourages the commodification of nature, and the transfer of public responsibilities to the private sector.  Under such a setting, and under the aegis of water securitisation, weak water stewardship in one part of the world is strong enough a rationale to justify the intensification of water extraction elsewhere.  This is indeed one of the arguments that legitimises the withdrawal and sale of bulk water in New Zealand, as it continues to be marketed in India and China.

Should water quality continue to be a matter of concern within New Zealand, greater subnational demand for private water will only help to exacerbate patterns of water extraction that risk the availability and renewability of water. Continue reading

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Natural Richness binds us together

On January 19, a day before the focus of Dunedin (and the world) turned to Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States, the Otago Daily Times reported the sad news of Dale’s demise.

Dale the seal had become a proto-celebrity in Dunedin, with his habit of disturbing traffic along Portsmouth Dr, and surprising pedestrians close to the area surrounding the Andersons Bay Inlet.

Dale became the subject that brought total strangers to converse, to share a laugh and to come together in their common admiration for an unusually close encounter with nature.  Anyone who gathered around Dale will most likely attest to these types of interactions.

While many would regard the “peace” Dale conveyed upon his countless admirers as sentimental, it highlights legitimate human reactions that find solid grounding on research exploring the connections between exposure to biodiversity and the emergence of systems of peace.

Biodiversity conservation provides much more than environmental benefits; it provides a base upon which humans may establish systems for co-operation and resource sharing.

The most evident of such cases, and a central topic of research carried out at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, is the process that brought the 1995 border dispute between Ecuador and Peru to a definitive resolution.

The materialisation of this process, the trans-boundary Condor-Kutuku Peace Park, was the manifestation of a shared belief that conserving natural resources, as opposed to fighting over them, would not only bring significant benefits to the warring parties, but it would also provide the stage for further co-operation.

This is also a reality in our own communities.  From exposure to sea lions and  gazing upon albatross nests to restoring seemingly lost wetlands, it is crucial to comprehend the often understated benefits of publicly funded initiatives that seek to conserve Dunedin’s, and New Zealand’s, natural resources and ecosystems.  Too often,  we highlight the economic benefits of these efforts, but we must also understand  these public investments  yield assets that transcend the directly visible human dimension, and help cement systems that allow us to establish co-operative and positive relationships.

Dale’s passing, as reflected in the small shrine at the juncture of Portsmouth Dr and Portobello Rd, highlights the sense of loss in a community that was briefly brought together by his sporadic appearances.  It should also remind us of the natural richness that binds us all together, and of our responsibility as a society to coalesce behind its protection.

Work still remains to be done to create an urban environment that fully integrates and respects our natural ecosystem, an objective worth rallying behind.  It takes more than the much-appreciated efforts of the Department of Conservation to ensure  future generations benefit from the same environmental elements we now enjoy.  Environmental conservation entails citizenship, and we must all embrace it, one action at a time.

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Give Peace a Chance in 2017

As published by the Otago Daily Times on December 23, 2016

2016 is drawing its last breaths, but in so doing, it consistently reminds us that this is not the same world that elected Barack Obama under the banner of change.  2016 reminds us that earth shocks can apply both literally and figuratively in a world where some continue to push for open borders, while others seek to encircle themselves with rigid, insular barriers of differentiation.

This is no longer the world where gathering in a place of worship means anything other than a pursuit for inner peace and community-building.  Recent events in Zurich remind us of that.  These and the other shameful tragedies of 2016 have deeply compromised our ability and willingness to congregate, but aside from the possibility of bodily harm, this mentality damages us in another way: We are no longer capable of coalescing behind a common goal.

2016 will go down in history as a pivotal year: 12 months that made the populations of the world doubt each other with unprecedented overtness.  Brexit may have sealed the destiny of the European Union, at a point in its history when ultra-nationalism and economic precariousness were already rocking its very foundational principles.  Even though a revised agreement was given congressional approval, the previous Colombia-FARC peace agreement was defeated in a referendum that many thought had the potential to stall the entire peace process.  And to the dismay of most progressives, the Trump electoral victory cements this general trend of  scepticism, which is leading our global ship to relatively unchartered waters.

This  scepticism, will become most evident in the way our policy-makers deal with fluctuations in environmental conditions.  Disbelief of the human environmental footprint will translate into blurring simple arithmetic truths: more humans on the planet means more mouths to feed, more bodies to clothe, more roofs over their heads, and stronger social security networks, all of which will inevitably amplify our already high demands for natural resources.  If these truths are met with suspicion by our political leaders, our societies will continue to rust away with growing inequality and injustice.

In the world painted to us by 2016, individuals seem relatively bereft of decision-making power beyond the thin curtain of liberal democracy.  This is not true.  Positive, local change remains at the grasp of anyone who wishes to extend his/her hand in friendship.  Peace is not an imposed phenomenon, or an inheritance that gets passed on by one individual to the next.  Peace is owned by those who wish to embrace it, with no other prerequisite attached to it.  In a world where conflict seems inevitable, there remains space for us to understand the hardships of our fellow compatriots and planet dwellers, for the challenges we must face are not exclusive to any given geographical location, political system or constructed reality.  In a world where change is both real and unpredictable, our political leaders have decided to turn the other way, but so can we.

Let 2017 be the year that brought us back to the fold of shared citizenship, trust and respect.  Let us not be defeated by the shifting tectonic plates of the world.

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Interdisciplinarity Solves Complex Problems and Saves Lives

Voices on Peace and Conflict

Author:  Adan E. Suazo, National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago

If the Ebola outbreak in West Africa taught the world anything, it is the need to interlink public health, environmentalism and human security matters to ensure sound crisis response mechanisms.

That was the clear conclusion of three days of talks held by experts in the fields of environmental science, conflict analysis and public health who gathered in Montreal, Canada earlier this year to discuss the research avenues that would lead to a better understanding of the real challenges of the 21st century.

As one of the members of the organising committee, along with Loyola Sustainability Research Centre (Concordia University) Director Peter Stoett, one of our reasons for creating such a venue was the realisation that the countries most affected by the Ebola crisis were also states recovering from the legacy of civil war (as in Sierra…

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Banning Deforestation and its Implications for Peace

Voices on Peace and Conflict

Author:  Adan E. Suazo, National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago

Adan E. Suazo is a doctoral researcher at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (University of Otago), and Associate Member of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre (Concordia University). 

Adan’s work focuses on the integration of environmental considerations in the study and implementation of peace processes. 

Norway’s Standing Committee on Energy and Environment recently put forth a recommendation to the Norwegian Parliament in favour of a ban on products that may have contributed to deforestation in their countries of origin.  The recommendation comes at a time when the Norwegian government is already investing substantially on conservation efforts in a number of key jurisdictions.  While this recommendation signifies an important step forward in relation to the healthsome management of forests, and overall biodiversity conservation efforts, it also has significant repercussions for the establishment of sustainable systems…

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Conference: “Avoiding Catastrophe – Linking Armed Conflict, Harm to Ecosystems and Public Health”

Dear Colleagues,

I am sending you all information about our upcoming “Avoiding Catastrophe – Linking Armed Conflict, Harm to Ecosystems and Public Health” Conference, which will take place on May 4-6, 2016 at Concordia University, Montreal.
Attached you will find:
Call for Student Papers

NGO Fair Poster

Please let me know if you have any questions.  In the meantime, I would appreciate it if you would disseminate this information through your networks.


Adan E. Suazo
Associate Member & Coordinator
Loyola Sustainability Research Centre
Concordia University, AD-502
7141 Sherbrooke Street West
Montreal, H4B 1R6
Phone: 514-848-2424 ext. 2125

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The Refugee Crisis in Syria and Canada’s Response

The heartbreaking images of Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body have permeated the screens of millions of people on a global scale, and prompted renewed calls for action by foreign governments to step up their commitments towards streamlining political asylum applications by Syrian citizens. While some countries have readily abided by the UNHCR’s call to accept more refugees, other countries remain enthralled in debates over how to manage the current crisis in Syria. One such country is Canada. This article seeks to provide a clear framework for increased Canadian engagement in the ongoing Syrian crisis by making a clear distinction between conflict regulation efforts and humanitarian relief, two practices whose symbiosis is essential to thwart conflicts, in Syria and elsewhere, while minimizing the negative effects of war on civilian populations.

Within the context of a conflict situation, there are two issues that need to be seen separately: conflict regulation and humanitarian relief. If one fails to recognize the differences between these two ideas, it is likely that both short and long-term efforts to ease war dynamics and post-conflict reconstruction will fail. A conflict can be seen as the ultimate symptom of the failure to find amicable ways to distribute a contested, finite resource. A resource can be anything from territory, access to political office, improvement in social and economic statuses, to access to natural resources. In this sense, regulation efforts are initiatives that are put in place to ease conflict dynamics to a tolerable-enough degree that will allow parties-at-war to initiate discussions over how a disputed resource can be redistributed satisfactorily.

Contrary to conflict regulation efforts, humanitarian relief initiatives are time-sensitive actions put in place for the preservation of human capital in a conflict zone. The ultimate goal of relief efforts is to minimize the damage inflicted upon civilian life during a time of war. When the direct effects of war are so devastating that the integrity of human capital cannot be sustained in situ, physical displacement becomes the only option available for those most imperiled by conflict. Regulation and relief efforts also differ in their targeted groups; the former set their resources to regulate the behaviour of conflict parties, while the latter seek to conserve the integrity of civilians. While it is important to establish a clear conceptual line between regulation and relief efforts, one must also understand that both practices are necessary to produce healthy post-conflict societies, and neither one should be excluded from policy debates.

In the case of Canada, key policymakers view regulation and relief initiatives as being mutually exclusive. Government officials have repeatedly called for enhanced military action to help regulate conflict dynamics in Syria while simultaneously employing insufficient policies in protecting the physical integrity of Syrian civilians. In view of the unsustainable conditions for life in Syria, fast-tracking political asylum applications and increasing the number of accepted Syrian refugees in Canada on a timely basis should be at the forefront of the Canadian government’s policy outlook. Contrary to the Canadian government’s policy angle, opposition parties have tended to favour plans to increase the number of accepted Syrian refugees in Canada, but provide lukewarm support to being militarily engaged in Syria on a unilateral basis.

The above-mentioned positions are half correct: the Canadian government is right in asserting that humanitarian relief efforts alone will not thwart the violence in Syrian soil. Tactical asymmetries between the parties-at-conflict create the necessary conditions for war protraction, and therefore for an extended timeframe within which Syrian civilians must endure life in a war-torn, precarious environment. But foregoing to move Canada’s resources toward enhancing its refugee admission capabilities does little to preserve what is left of the Syrian human capital seeking protection abroad. In contrast, the opposition parties are correct to highlight the time-sensitive nature of providing humanitarian aid in the forms of civilian support in Syria, and fast-tracking and increasing the number of approved refugee applications to Canada. However, humanitarian aid alone does not influence the conflict dynamics in Syria sufficiently and, as mentioned above, risks protracting the conflict under the false pretence that enough is being done to resolve the crisis.

An active Canadian presence in Syria that encompasses both a military component that will influence war dynamics and a humanitarian relief effort that will help in keeping Syrian civilians safe does not come without its own set of obstacles. Violence is currently being waged by a number of different factions, most notably anti-government forces (themselves a coalition of groups with divergent ideological goals), the Syrian military, and the Islamic State (ISIS). Unsanctioned military engagement by Canada and Western countries, however, will inevitably signify providing support to and aligning themselves politically with the Bashar al-Assad regime, which helps to explain why such an intervention has not yet been enacted in Syria, but was so readily put into action in Iraq. Furthermore, the legitimizing potential of a UN Security Council mandate under Chapter 7 to intervene in Syria is highly improbable due to the propensity of the use of vetoes in said chamber, which casts further doubt as to whether unilateral or multilateral military action will ever be envisaged by Canada or other Western countries.

With the question of military engagement being rendered unlikely, and in view of the increasing number of human deaths and population displacement in Syria, what policy options are left for middle powers like Canada? As mentioned above, the humanitarian relief option is one that remains fully available to the Canadian government. While this relief would be insufficient in regulating the dynamics of war in Syria, it would nevertheless have an enormous impact in preserving the country’s human capital. Such a path could lead to Canada admitting Syrian refugees as per UNHCR guidelines. A second option would require the provision of logistical support to countries that already have a high volume of refugees, or that are directly involved in the ongoing traffic of Syrian refugees, most notably Turkey, Italy, and Greece.

In closing, one must comprehend two important issues. Firstly, the dynamics of the Syrian civil war are perhaps the most complex in our world today. The number of war parties, their motivations to take arms, and their tactical know-how make of Syria a country whose violence is increasingly harder to regulate. In addition to this, the regional and international atmosphere of the Syrian crisis provides further obstacles for the introduction of external agents of peace, which limits action within the spirit of multilateralism. And secondly, and in view of the international community’s powerlessness to thwart violence in Syria, a strong unilateral policy regarding Syrian refugees remains at the jurisdictional grasp of individual states, including Canada, and they must act accordingly. Such a stance would not signify a permanent solution to the on-going crisis in Syria, but it would help in preserving the integrity of its non-combatant groups and individuals. In such a crisis, a timely, half solution is better than none.

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