Heat is on when it comes to cross-border environmental threats

Heat is on when it comes to cross-border environmental threats

Heat is on when it comes to cross-border environmental threats
A firefighter monitors a forest fire near Kyuyorelyakh village, west of Yakutsk, Russia, Aug. 7, 2021. (AP Photo)
Short Url

Last week, an oil spill from a refinery in the northwest Syrian town of Baniyas drifted toward Cyprus, forcing authorities on the island to take emergency measures.
The leak provides an example of how environmental problems often cross borders, with policies or accidents that originate in one country affecting others. Environmental crises provide clear evidence of the interconnectedness of our world, and the need for bilateral, regional, and global cooperation.
Pollution and other environmental concerns can flow between countries via air, water or land. Airborne smoke and particles from severe wildfires in Russia this year reached Mongolia, the North Pole, Greenland and Canada. Smoke from wildfires in the western US and Canada this summer floated eastward, lowering air quality on the US east coast.
Air pollution from industry and other sources has long posed a problem to neighboring countries in many parts of the world. For years, pollution from China has had serious environmental and health impacts on Japan and South Korea, though China has taken steps to reduce pollutant levels since 2013. Air pollution from India affects Bangladesh. Slash-and-burn deforestation in Southeast Asia has lowered regional air quality, with huge human and economic costs.
The oil leak from Syria is a recent example of waterborne pollution, which can spread through oceans or other waterways to other countries. Pollutants from a diamond-processing plant in Angola that spilled into a tributary of the Congo River last month now threaten wildlife, as well as human health, in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The US Congress recently considered a bill to address concerns about water pollution from Mexico affecting southern California.
Shipping accidents highlight another way that water pollution from one area can affect another. Earlier this year, a cargo ship with owners based in Singapore caught fire and sank near Sri Lanka, resulting in a major environmental disaster that is likely to affect the island for decades. Last year, a Japanese-operated vessel ran aground off Mauritius. The resulting oil leak was minor in relative terms, but it threatened an ecologically important area. Countries hit by shipping disasters can seek compensation, but this can be a long, complicated process, and may not provide sufficient funds for a cleanup and to address costs to locals’ livelihoods and health.
Transboundary water disputes and inequitable use are other major challenges between countries. On river systems that cross borders, the actions of upstream countries can have negative effects for downstream countries that also depend on water for human consumption, agriculture or hydroelectricity. In the Middle East, Turkish dams and other water management systems built since the 1970s have dramatically reduced water flow to Syria and Iraq. Ethiopia’s dispute with Egypt and Sudan over its dam on the Blue Nile has increased the risk of a regional conflict. As climate change raises the threat of prolonged drought and sea level rise, which can contribute to saltwater intrusion, disputes are more likely.
Pollution and other environmental threats spread most easily when air or waterborne, but environmental problems on land also can have cross-border impacts. Droughts, wind storms or floods that damage crops can affect global supply chains and food prices. Short and long-term environmental disasters can prompt human migration across borders.
These examples are only a few of many cases in which environmental issues have become concerns for multiple countries. Climate change is now the ultimate example of how environmental actions in one country can affect the entire world. Nations with historic or current high carbon emissions are changing the climate for everyone. This summer brought a record heat wave in parts of the US and Canada, severe flooding in a string of European states and wildfires in several Mediterranean countries — only a few recent examples of climate change affecting people across borders.
The transboundary nature of many environmental problems, plus climate change, clearly demonstrates that people around the world are fundamentally connected. Combined with the coronavirus pandemic, the events of the past two years have made global interconnectivity obvious.
Cooperation at bilateral, regional and global levels is clearly necessary to address pollution, other environmental crises and climate change. There are signs of progress. The number of large oil spills from shipping has dropped significantly in recent decades. The four countries along the Senegal River in Africa have a history of cooperative water management. The UN offers various tools for multilateral cooperation, including through the UN Environment Programme and other conventions. There are other examples of successful bilateral and regional agreements to mutually manage environmental concerns.

Pollution and other environmental threats spread most easily when air or waterborne, but environmental problems on land also can have cross-border impacts.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Unfortunately, there also are many examples of failed efforts. Diplomacy is particularly difficult when there are disputes between countries with limited resources, or when one or more countries are determined to pursue economic development without consideration for the impact on the environment or neighboring communities. As climate change exacerbates water shortages and other challenges, competition might win out over cooperation.
The upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in November offers an opportunity for countries to demonstrate the political will necessary to cooperate on climate change. Improved cooperation on this fundamental issue could help create experience and space for more cooperation on other environmental issues as well.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view