The emergence of environment as a security imperative is something that could have been avoided. Early indications showed that if governments did not pay attention to critical environmental issues, these would move up the security agenda. As far back as the Club of Rome 1972 report, Limits to Growth, variables highlighted for policy makers included world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion, all of which impact how we live on this planet. The term environmental security didn’t come into general use until the 2000s. It had its first substantive framing in 1977, with the Lester Brown Worldwatch Paper 14, “Redefining Security.” Brown argued that the traditional view of national security was based on the “assumption that the principal threat to security comes from other nations.” He went on to argue that future security “may now arise less from the relationship of nation to nation and more from the relationship between man to nature.” Of the major documents to come out of the Earth Summit in 1992, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development is probably the first time governments have tried to frame environmental security. Principle 2 says: “States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and developmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national.” In 1994, the UN Development Program defined Human Security into distinct categories, including: • Economic security (assured and adequate basic incomes). • Food security (physical and affordable access to food). • Health security. • Environmental security (access to safe water, clean air and non-degraded land). By the time of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, in 2002, water had begun to be identified as a security issue, first at the Rio+5 conference, and as a food security issue at the 1996 FAO Summit. In 2003, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan set up a High-Level Panel on “Threats, Challenges, and Change,” to help the UN prevent and remove threats to peace. It started to lay down new concepts on collective security, identifying six clusters for member states to consider. These included economic and social threats, such as poverty, infectious disease, and environmental degradation. By 2007, health was being recognized as a part of the environmental security discourse, with World Health Day celebrating “International Health Security (IHS).” In particular, it looked at emerging diseases, economic stability, international crises, humanitarian emergencies, and chemical, radioactive, and biological terror threats. Environmental and climate changes have a growing impact on health. The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identified climate security as a key challenge for the 21st century. This was followed up in 2009 by the UCL-Lancet Commission on Managing the Health Effects of Climate Change—linking health and climate change. In the run-up to Rio+20 and the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, the issue of the climate-food-water-energy nexus, or rather, inter-linkages, between these issues was highlighted. The dialogue on environmental security has moved from a fringe discussion to being central to our political discourse—this is because of the lack of implementation of previous international agreements.
In an era of calamitous climate change, entrenched malnutrition, and the chronic exclusion of hundreds of millions of people from access to affordable energy, food, and water, evaluating the policy options of African states to address these challenges matters more than ever. In the Nile Basin especially, a region notorious for its poverty, violent instability and lack of industrialisation, states have invested their scarce resources and political capital in a “hydraulic mission” in the belief that they can engineer their way out of international marginalization. Incumbents have bet on large-scale hydro-infrastructure and capital-intensive agriculture to boost food production, strengthen energy security, and deal with water scarcity, despite the woeful track-record of such a supply-side approach to development. While ruling elites in the Nile Basin have portrayed the hydraulic mission as the natural way of developing the region’s resources—supposedly validated by the historical achievements of Pharaonic civilization and its mastery over its tough environment—this is a modern fiction, spun to justify politically expedient projects and the exclusion of broad layers of the population. In the last two hundred years, the hydraulic mission has made three major political contributions that underline its strategic usefulness to centralizing elites: it has enabled the building of modern states and a growing bureaucratic apparatus around a riverain political economy; it has generated new national narratives that have allowed unpopular regimes to rebrand themselves as protectors of the nation; and it has facilitated the forging of external alliances, linking the resources and elites of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to global markets and centers of influence. Mega-dams, huge canals and irrigation for export are fundamentally about power and the powerful—and the privileging of some interests and social formations over others. The one-sided focus on increasing supply—based on the false premise that this will allow ordinary people to access more food and water—transfers control over livelihoods from one (broad) group of people to (a much narrower) other one by legitimizing top-down interventionism and dislocation. What presents itself as a strategy of water resources and agricultural development is really about (re)constructing hierarchies between people. The mirage of supply-side development continues to seduce elites at the helm of the state because it keeps them in power and others out of it.