Desecuritizing the environment


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ON the morning of 26 December 2004, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale hit the west coast of Sumatra and released energy equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshima bombs into the Indian Ocean. The resulting tsunami around the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) left nearly a quarter million people in fourteen countries dead. Coastal communities were inundated and rural economies shattered. Real time information on the earthquake and the tsunami that hit the coast of Banda Aceh within minutes of the quake were available, but the message was not transmitted to other countries around the IOR, which were hit later. The absence of a tsunami early warning system at this time and the failure of the response system is a prominent example of the faultlines in the institutional and policy architecture for regional cooperation in the IOR, which is primarily designed to provide traditional territorial and national security.

The prospect of increased frequency and severity of natural disasters due to climate change has catalyzed political attention towards the so-called ‘non-traditional security concerns’ in the IOR. Equally critical, but less dramatic, the gradual onset and long-term environmental threats have however been much lower on the agenda. The sustainable and equitable use of natural resources of the ocean, protection of coastal environments, and building the resilience of communities to natural hazards need similar regional strategies. While these strategies are very different from security strategies, regional cooperation continues to be studied, analyzed, and conceived overwhelmingly through a prism of national security. The logic of security and the dominant foreign policy discourse in IOR more often than not centres on territorial politics, military influence, national security against maritime terrorism, and trends in geopolitical power dynamics which obfuscates the everyday politics of managing ‘nature’ that exists without boundaries.

What are the challenges of sustainably using natural resources of the Indian Ocean, conserving coastal and marine ecosystems, and protecting coastal communities in the IOR? We argue that both mindsets and institutions need to change, for which ‘non-security issues’ will first need to be de-securitized and opened up for a wider political debate.

‘Security’ is a type of social practice. The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War led to the opening up of new epistemic fronts for security studies and a broadening mandate of security institutions through the securitization1 of transnational environments. Resultant state-centric securitization moves draw attention to the potential for ‘warlike’ competition over scarce resources (given a mindset of ‘us vs. them’) and threats to ‘borders’ from large-scale displacement of people and chaos precipitated by natural disasters. Securitization of the environment ultimately justifies the suspension of ‘normal’ politics of good resource management: engagement of multiple stakeholders, use of scientific arguments, and knowledge and social deliberation. Normal politics is replaced by the politics of emergency and threat characterized by the primacy of the role of the state, secrecy around data and knowledge, and centralized and non-participative (and thus exclusionary) policy-making. Prognostications of increased bilateral tensions thus thrive, in turn further entrenching a security mindset.


Yet no wars have ever been fought over the environment. Competition over scarce resources may exacerbate existing ethnic or territorial conflicts, but environmental cooperation has more often become the site for building peace in conflict situations. Indeed, a study of 148 countries and 205 shared river basins has shown that ‘any two nations engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war.’2 Take for example the Senegal River Basin Development Authority, a collaboration between Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal (which scores high on a quotient that measures the effectiveness and intensity of trans-boundary cooperation in water). It is clear that although it is necessary to account for security ramifications (environmental degradation is a threat to humanity; there are economic consequences of migration, etc.), the entire conversation, both at the level of and below policymakers, must not be subsumed by national security. Viewing the environment through a prism of security is likely to lead to a narrow understanding of issues and a consequent misdiagnosis of the problem.


Securitization is evident in the existing institutions and collective processes of the Indian Ocean/Asia-Pacific region. In evidence are the existing ocean-wide arrangements, as well as several sub-regional ones and those with strong external linkages, most of which focus on issues of maritime or economic security. The table below3 identifies, (i) those groupings in which India, China and Australia, the bigger powers in the Indo-Pacific Region, are either participants or dialogue/contract partners and (ii) the primary purpose of the security arrangement. Only the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, while ocean-wide, focuses on environment, but it is narrow in its undertaking given its issue-specificity.

IOR/Indo-Pacific Regional Grouping and their Preoccupations


Economic Security

Maritime Security

Environmental Security

Traditional Security

Multi-dimensional Security


Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC)



Indian Ocean Naval Symposium




Indian Ocean Tuna Commission





ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)




Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)



Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)



Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery (ReCAAP)




South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)



Southern African Development Community (SADC)



External Linkage


Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)



East Asia Summit (EAS)




Environmental issues require detailed and localized understanding of the dynamics between economic, social and ecological processes. The following three sections examine the challenges of managing fisheries, protecting marine ecosystems and building community resilience against extreme weather and disasters to argue that a ‘macro’ framework of security is likely to gloss over critical dynamics.


Fish production in the Indian Ocean has increased ‘dramatically’ in the last 50-odd years, from 561,000 tons in 1950 to 11.5 million tons in 2010. The East Indian Ocean accounts for 80% of the total world fish production and, more importantly, 45% of the world’s fishers:4 fishing benefits national economies and provides livelihood to millions of households. Fish is also a crucial food source, providing significant percentages of animal protein in diets of people living in Indian Ocean countries.

Fisheries are facing a growing stress from overexploitation, marine pollution and habitat destruction. The lack of effective management policies has worsened the depletion of fish stocks. While national legislation to manage fisheries does exist, they are outdated and plagued by noncompliance and weak monitoring and enforcement – especially in deep waters away from national coasts. FAO and the World Bank have concluded that ‘[i]mproved governance of marine fisheries could capture a substantial part of [the] $50 billion annual economic loss’ ascribed to underperformance,5 apart from managing fish stocks in a more sustainable manner.

Regional fisheries management organizations in the IOR do exist, such as the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission and the Southern Indian Ocean Fisheries Agreement, a legally binding treaty that envisages long-term conservation and sustainable use of fisheries in the area. A World Bank project for the southern African Indian Ocean littoral states is also in the pipeline, which recognizes the importance of fisheries as a key contributor to the development of the littoral nations and will look to improve their management.


But the potential conflict over fisheries in the IOR is finding its way into the policy discourse. Analysts point out that climate change will alter the fishing potential in the IOR – some zones will increase in productivity while others will decline. The potential for collisions as boats seek out new fishing grounds is oft cited by analysts, and is certainly expected to happen in the Bay of Bengal, where dramatic declines are projected. The India-Sri Lanka fishermen conflict further highlights the ease with which fault lines can develop and a ‘neo-Malthusian perspective’6 – one which sees diminishing natural resources as a source of strife – can become dominant, particularly among the policymaking elite.

The emerging challenges to fisheries in IOR would be best handled through agreements/frameworks and institutions that are designed to collect, share and analyze fisheries data, engage multiple state/non-state actors and deliberate cooperation regionally. A bottoms-up solution involving fishing communities, but strongly supported by the government and security forces would be ideal.


The IOR is a region rich in ecosystems (it encompasses nine distinct marine ecosystems) and biodiversity (it is home to 35,000 marine species with biodiversity hotspots around southwest Africa, southern India, Southwest Asia and western Australia). The IOR also lays claim to 66,000 km of coastline that houses 246 large estuaries and 40,000 km2 of mangrove forests and boasts of 30% of the world’s coral reefs.7

The value of ocean ecosystems is unbounded. The quantifiable economic value is easier to comprehend, as the yearly values of ecosystems and natural capital of several areas in the Indian Ocean are easily the highest in the world. Tourism also adds to a nation’s coffers, especially those of small island states: Maldives, for example, earns 28% of its GDP from this sector. But there is a large non-quantifiable value of ecosystems that cannot be ignored. Mangrove forests, for instance, provide shore protection, habitat and feeding grounds, and ‘have been valued at $200,000 to $900,000 per hectare per year.’8 Deep sea biodiversity, an emerging field of study, is another example.

Burgeoning human pressure is degrading and threatening these essential ecosystems. Development of urban infrastructure and coastal cities leads to domestic sewage, industrial effluents and agriculture runoff that flows into the Indian Ocean waters, causing eutrophication, hypoxia, and toxic dead zones that are also harmful to aquatic life. For example, Indian coastal seas are said to be receiving 3.9 trillion litres of domestic sewage and 390 billion litres of industrial sewage annually.9 Increased exploitation of natural resources, particularly through use of equipment inimical to marine land and life (such as beach seines and trawlers), also adversely affects IOR ecosystems, as do global warming and climate change.


There are several ongoing conservation efforts in the Indian Ocean, particularly those backed by international organizations. For example, the Mangroves for the Future initiative, co-chaired by IUCN and UNDP, has ten participating IOR nations, and promotes an integrated ocean-wide approach to coastal management. The Indian National Institute of Oceanography is currently planning to ink a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh to study the Bay of Bengal, and is in the process of negotiating with other littoral states for an international Indian Ocean expedition. There is hope for a global biodiversity treaty in September 2015.

It is also true that regional attempts such as the Organization for Indian Ocean Maritime Affairs Cooperation (IOMAC) have failed. A Sri Lankan initiative launched in 1985, the attempt was to promote development of the IOR littorals through dialogue and technical cooperation. But disputes soon rendered the organization defunct, as well as the fact that IOR powers like India, Australia and South Africa chose not to become members ‘for a variety of political reasons.’10 Given that IOMAC strongly focused on marine science, technology, environment and resources, it is unfortunate that political conversation dominated what could, in effect, have become a truly regional platform to collective manage IOR ecosystems and resources.

Such platforms are critical, particularly because of a lack of uniformity in our understanding of biodiversity, given varying levels of institutional, human and technical capacities of the 31 littoral states. Viewing the IOR through a prism of national security will impinge on collective efforts that in turn will perpetuate knowledge gaps, and thereby maintain a stilted balance of capacity in the region.


Climate change, the effects of which are already being felt in the IOR, is likely to further exacerbate the frequency and the intensity of extreme weather events such as tsunamis, cyclones and floods. As a recent study reveals, extreme events are likely to increase by almost three times, from one such incident every 17.3 years during the 20th century to one every 6.3 years over the current century.11 Several hotspots of climate change vulnerability have been identified by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) along the Indian Ocean rim, but Indian Ocean port cities are inadequately prepared to address and adapt to climate disasters.

Climate change is very much seen as the straw that may break the camel’s back. It is the opinion of many that rising sea levels, glacial melt and extreme weather could exacerbate ongoing conflict. Bangladesh is a favourite example in this context. Illegal migration from Bangladesh into India is a continuing bone of contention between the two neighbours. With water shortages on the cards as well as rising sea levels and a high probability of extreme weather events, ‘the Bangladeshi pressure cooker could well explode, triggered by an extreme cyclone, for instance, spilling millions of people into India.’12


The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting tsunami precipitated a range of collaborative steps to build early warning systems. For example, the Unesco-supported Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation Systems (ITOWS) which is likely to save on average 1,000 lives every year for the next 100 years.13 Having said that, the ITOWS requires an upkeep of $90 million a year;14 sustaining such an effort will require for it to be embedded within a broader framework of supporting sustainable development in the Indian Ocean.

Furthermore, ‘last mile connectivity,’ i.e. grassroots empowerment through information, training and local preparedness and risk-reduction mechanisms still need more attention. The Indian Disaster Management Act of 2005 aims at training panchayat heads in disaster preparedness and management in Indian coastal areas, but progress in the last three years has been limited.


Securitization of environmental issues in the IOR is a complex processes – communities of analysts, influential scholars and policymakers have ‘talked-up’ the implications of potential ‘threats’ from ‘nature’ to national sovereignty and territorial security. The narrative around such linkages acquires social authority because of the dominance of security related institutions in international relations. However, as the analysis of issues around fisheries management, conservation of marine ecosystems and building resilience to coastal hazards shows, a security framework and security institutions are in their essence not equipped to convene regional cooperation on emerging environmental issues for three major reasons.

First, the relationship between science/scientific knowledge and policy/management needs to be central to a collective response. Data needs to be generated, shared, debated and analyzed, and science must drive policy. Traditional security practices have a very different relationship to science, data and knowledge: data is secret and needs to be collected and hidden.

Second, good environmental management requires the participation of all stakeholders – knowledge rests not just with scientists but also with communities who engage with the environment in everyday life. Security traditionally is the domain of the state and analysts aligned with the state. There is little room for a wider public discourse in the formulation of national security strategies.

Third, emerging environmental issues, especially climate change, are characterized by a high degree of scientific uncertainty – institutions that manage these issues need to be flexible and adaptive, have the ability to gather and analyze emerging knowledge, and deliberate with multiple stakeholders across national boundaries to craft a response. Security strategies are often driven by very deeply entrenched and ‘fixed’ political priorities.

Management of challenges that know no national boundaries will require ‘trans-border’ solutions, but the provision of these solutions – ranging from enhancing knowledge- sharing to fostering regionally focused initiatives – cannot effectively emerge from institutional mindsets primarily invested in military power, national security and territorial conflict.


A ‘de-securitized’ vision advances a regional approach – since such issues are best addressed by those nations with direct stakes in them – as also a decentralized approach: one which assumes ‘that the best knowledge and expertise about local conditions will generally be found at the local level.’15 An emphasis on place-based and context-specific experiences of communities living with environmental change will strengthen the argument against ‘securitizing’ the right of millions to develop and prosper as well as the argument for ‘securing’ the freedom for them to do so. A de-securitized proposition holds even more weight when thinking of ‘environment’ as a common space that is often a site for peace-building measures, and not conflicts.

De-securitization in the IOR would therefore require popular debates between multiple stakeholders from across the countries; flexible management approaches that require gathering, sharing and analysis of emerging science and knowledge – such as technology and best practices – on a continuous basis; and open, transparent and inclusive institutions that allow this flexibility.



1. The Copenhagen School (COS) associated with the work of Barry Buzan, Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde argues that ‘securitization’ is a social process and a range of issues can be ‘constructed’ as security challenges by speech acts, talking them up as security concerns. A collection of speech acts could construct an issue as a security issue and call for a suspension of normal politics by replacing it with the politics of emergency and threat.

2. Prince Hassan bin Talal and Sundeep Waslekar, ‘Water Cooperation for a Secure World’, Strategic Foresight Group, 25 November 2013.

3. Information based on table present in: ‘The Indian Ocean Region: Security, Stability and Sustainability. Report of the Australia-India Institute Task Force on Indian Ocean Security, March 2013, p. 28.

4. David Michel, Halae Fuller, and Lindsay Dolan, ‘Natural Resources in the Indian Ocean: Fisheries and Minerals’, in David Michel and Russell Sticklor (eds.), Indian Ocean Rising: Maritime Security and Policy Challenges. Stimson, Washington, 2012, p. 103.

5. ‘General Facts Regarding World Fisheries’, United Nations,

6. Kuhan Madhan, ‘India-Sri Lanka: Conflict Over Fishing Rights’, IPCS, 16 January 2014,

7. David Michel, ‘Environmental Pressures in the Indian Ocean’, in Indian Ocean Rising: Maritime Security and Policy Challenges. Op. cit., fn. 4, p. 120.

8. Ibid., pp. 113-114.

9. Wafar et. al., ‘State of Knowledge of Coastal and Marine Biodiversity of Indian Ocean Countries’, PLoS One 6(1), 2011.

10. Y.J. Sithara N. Fernando, ‘Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region: Towards the Co-existence of IOMAC and IOR-ARC.’ Associate Paper, Future Directions International, 7 June 2011.

11. K.S. Rajgopal, ‘Extreme Events in the Indian Ocean Region’, The Hindu, 12 June 2014.

12. Nitin Pai, ‘Climate Change and National Security: Preparing India for New Conflict Scenarios.’ Indian National Interest Policy Brief No.1, April 2008.

13. Shamshad Akhtar et. al., ‘Ten Years After the Indian Ocean Tsunami: Walking the Last Mile Together on Early Warning.’ UNESCAP, 16 December 2014.

14. Ben Bland, ‘Indian Ocean Tsunami: Building Blocks’, Financial Times, 18 December 2014.

15. Nina Graeger, ‘Environmental Security?’ Journal of Peace Research 33(1), 1996, p. 114.