Armenia’s Environmental Security

What is Environmental Security?

When we talk about environmental challenges and the urgent need to address them, we often come across a contradictory narrative of “saving the planet.” The paradox here lies in the simple fact that our planet does not need saving. Planet Earth has existed for over 4.5 billion years. Compare that to our species, which has only been around for 150,000-200,000 years, and you realize that we are just passersby, just another mammal that might go extinct soon enough if we fail to grasp and act on the crucial yet simple act of preserving the ecosystem balance of the natural world.

At the core of this paradox lies the false precept that we humans, as the most advanced organisms on this planet, position ourselves outside or above the natural ecosystem, and thus exploit the environment as we extract, mine, hunt, clearcut, pollute, destroy, contaminate, etc. over and over and over again. Yet, as we gradually begin to grasp the ecocidal nature of our species and the collective force of our destruction, we realize that a change to this behavior would require rewiring not only the way we run our economies but the way we think, act and behave toward the natural world, of which we are an intrinsic part.

It is important to note that this realization only came around in the early 1980s, when the term “environmental security” was coined as a subset of broader concerns over human security. It wasn’t until 1994, when the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Report was released, which incorporated the term and concept of environmental security in the broader context of human security.  Over the past two decades, the definition and scope of environmental security have broadened to include food security, energy security, water security as well as climate security, with the latter also encompassing adaptation and resilience to hazards.

While environmental science and our understanding and knowledge of the ways in which we can protect the natural world have increased dramatically, particularly over the past two decades, our ways of exploiting this planet have conversely, for the most part, gone unchanged. In this context, it is important to note that most of the doomsday scientific predictions, often giving humanity a 50-50 chance of surviving the 21st century, have our world ending due to either technological disruption, nuclear war or major environmental catastrophes. And while all of these scenarios have quite plausible chances of becoming a reality, the most predictable and those with actual deadlines of a point of no return are the environmental catastrophes.

 

Armenia: Climate Change

Zooming into Armenia from the global context of environmental challenges, it is important to begin from the most systemic and looming environmental challenge facing this small mountainous, land-locked and mostly semi-arid country. Climate change is not a forecast for Armenia. Climate change is a reality, which Armenia is already facing today, with a 9% decrease in precipitation and a 1.3 degree Celsius increase in average temperatures since the early 1900s. Just like for the rest of the planet, Armenia’s warming temperatures coupled with a decrease in precipitation pose the most palpable risks tied to human security, food security, economic security and water security. The rising temperatures and drop in precipitation resulting in droughts and unprecedented weather patterns have already caused millions in economic losses. In the long term, climate change will lead to desertification, which in turn will pose, among others, critical food security risks for the country.

In the scope of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), signatories to the 2016 Paris Agreement have committed to capping rising temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report re-evaluated and called for a cap of 1.5 degrees. This would mean that, instead of an initial 2.7% reduction in annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the world would have to commit to a 7.6% reduction in annual GHG emissions from 2020 to 2030.

While Armenia, together with many other small developing nations, relies on the biggest polluters[1] of the world to make the right commitments and curb emissions, it must also do its own “homework” and not only mitigate its own emissions (which are only 0.02% of the global total) but also adapt to the changing climate, because another degree of warming, which is inevitable, will affect virtually every sector of the economy from agriculture to manufacturing. If left unprepared, the country will face serious security and developmental risks. In the framework of updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) – a document that is submitted to the Secretariat of the UNFCCC – Armenia commits to reducing its GHG emissions and lays out a plan for how it will do so. This politically important document also defines the key sectors and activities aimed at adapting the country’s infrastructure to climate change.

With funding from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the support of UNDP, Armenia is currently working on developing the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) – a vital strategic document that will guide the government in policy and its implementation aimed at adaptation to climate change. To succeed in employing the NAP and duly preparing the country for warming temperatures, it is necessary to streamline climate policy and decision-making across the government, as well as mandate the highest tiers of the government to coordinate climate decision-making domestically and negotiate with our partners internationally.

Adaptation activities are largely related to vast infrastructural investments that are cost intensive. Hence, it is crucial for Armenia to plan and maneuver effectively in mobilizing climate finance both through the international climate funds as well as bilaterally through various financing mechanisms.

Being a country that is not a fossil fuel producer, Armenia’s transition to carbon neutrality is not simply a “feel good” political endeavor, but one that is at the core of the country’s energy independence, energy security and resilient and green growth. Thus, it is strategically important for Armenia to mobilize at scale climate finance, which would be focused on both mitigation and adaptation activities. It is key to stress that investing in mitigation, adaptation or cross-cutting sectors should not be viewed as a cost but rather a long term, economically efficient, socially fair and environmentally sound investment for the resilient development of Armenia’s society and economy. Promoting and stimulating electric mobility is one particularly promising direction in Armenia. Transport, being one of the most polluting sectors in the country, has the potential to not only reduce GHG emissions, resulting in cleaner air, but also provide more energy security and energy independence guarantees for the country, particularly in cases where e-mobility could tap directly into solar energy production. The development of this sector would also bring innovation in engineering as well as more potential scientific engagement and new vocational training opportunities and green jobs.

With the support of the World Bank’s team, Armenia developed a debt-for-climate innovative financial swap mechanism, which focuses primarily on bilateral and public debt, with potential scalability to other countries. This debt-for-climate bilateral public debt swap offers: (1) the opportunity to relieve the country of its debt burden, (2) to redirect those funds toward timely and efficient fulfillment of commitments taken under the given country’s NDCs, and (3) allows for developed countries to fulfill their commitments under the Paris Agreement. Armenia had commenced negotiations with France on the debt-for-climate swap and it is critically important for these negotiations to continue as well as for Armenia to initiate negotiations with other bilateral lenders. In times like this, when Armenia’s fiscal space is extremely constrained and the economy is attempting to recover from the severe blows of war and COVID-19, it is critical for the government to engage in meaningful dialogue on debt-for-climate swapping, particularly in light of the fact that virtually all environmental projects have a socio-economic component.[2]

 

Lake Sevan

Lake Sevan, often referred to as the Pearl of the South Caucasus, is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. It is truly a natural gem and a strategically important natural site not only for Armenia but also the entire region. Unfortunately, Sevan was exploited and unsustainably managed for agricultural and energy purposes for many decades. Current environmental challenges stem from this neglect and overexploitation, which accumulated over time and led to some of the most critical environmental security issues looming over not only the lake’s ecosystem, but also the socio-economic viability of the adjacent communities and the region of Gegharkunik at large. The initial drop in the surface level of the lake by almost 20 meters in the 1930s led to major stress on the natural balance of the lake’s ecosystem. This was coupled with decades of uncontrolled wastewater inflow, agricultural runoff, illegal fishing and depletion of the fish stock due in part to solid waste pollution of the rivers. The most recent but no less dangerous pressure on the lake is climate change, whereby rising temperatures coupled with deterioration in the quality and quantity of water in the lake led to the incidence of dangerous algal blooms, which if not addressed in time, could lead to serious repercussions, such as, for example, “turning” of the lake, which would mean permanent swamping.

Lake Sevan is a complex ecosystem. Permanent solutions must also be systemic in nature, i.e. it would not suffice to simply build wastewater treatment infrastructure for the communities around the lake. It would be critical to work with the communities to change their behavior in water use, in solid waste disposal and in illegal fishing. A systemic approach would also require adopting respective legislation on how high, through what means and through what type of infrastructural changes (e.g. adapting roads, cleaning shorelines, etc.) the lake’s water surface level must be raised. This approach would also require reviewing the entire strategy of water use and water basin management in Armenia, because current pressures on Lake Sevan also stem from the unsustainable use of water resources in the country in general. The Ministry of Environment had commenced a review and development of strategies for the sustainable management of Armenia’s six water basins. This is important research, policy and legislative work, but for it to be effective and applicable, it is critically important to establish more effective horizontal cooperation between government agencies and better vertical oversight from top tiers of the government not only over policymaking bodies, but also those that oversee and enforce the proper implementation and sustainable use of natural resources.

 

Water Resources

After the oil-intensive 20th century, the era of the 21st century marks a transition to water becoming the most crucial commodity. With climate change looming and freshwater resources dwindling at a much faster pace than predicted by scientists, water has already become the most sought after commodity for many arid and semi-arid parts of the world. The geography of water deficits is expanding annually. Although Armenia boasts an incredible wealth of H2O, and its comparative ratio of water per capita is quite high, water losses due to infrastructural deficiencies and poor behavior are simply abhorrent (in some sectors reaching up to 80%). With agriculture increasingly becoming a priority economic sector and one with potentially exponential growth, the Armenian government must revamp the institutional setup, governance, legislation and oversight for water resource management. Not only is it critical to address currently existing infrastructural and behavioral causes of massive water losses, but it is vital to start building the necessary infrastructure to address mid- to long-term risks of water depletion.

In this context, it is important to note that, over the past two decades, Turkey has built massive water reservoir infrastructure along the Turkey-Armenia border. In the mid- to long-term, this will cause significant damage to the agricultural sector of the Shirak and Ararat regions of Armenia. Undoubtedly, this almost predatory infrastructural strategy (a number of large water reservoirs on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers alone) and water policy on the part of Turkey will soon cause political tensions in the region beyond the South Caucasus and will include countries like Iran and Iraq, as climate change and warming temperatures are already causing significant damage to the agricultural sectors of these countries.

The wider region is also projected to experience intensification in sand storms as a direct consequence of reduced water resources and reduced precipitation.

 

Mining

Mining is perhaps Armenia’s most palpable, most visible and most socially unfair environmental security challenge. In many respects, over the past two decades, mining has become Armenia’s very own Dutch Disease, as successive governments over-relied on the ease of filling state coffers with royalties and tax revenues from big miners. This has led to chronically lax legislation on mining and a void of social and environmental responsibility. Consequently, the environmental situation in many currently operating and abandoned mines is dire. This has led to communities opting out from allowing new mining sites (and their permanent albeit low-paying jobs). Unfortunately, this has led to the perpetuation of poverty, an overreliance on mining jobs in some communities, and underdevelopment and underinvestment in other sectors.

The current administration had initiated a series of important legislative changes to the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), environmental legislation pertaining to mining and to environmental taxes and fees. Yet, these changes can be effective only if respective amendments are made in the country’s mining strategy, legislation and legal provisions pertaining to proper oversight and inspection. However, as previously mentioned, there is a lack of horizontal cooperation between the respective government institutions and a lack of proper vertical oversight.

 

Hazardous Waste

Hazardous waste, including industrial waste, is another existing and growing environmental security challenge in Armenia. Although legislation is mostly in place for operationalizing the processes of sorting, transporting, disposing and neutralizing hazardous waste, there are no existing hazardous waste polygons[3] in the country. This means that all hazardous waste, including industrial, electronic and chemical waste, is currently mixed with municipal waste, leading to toxic pollution of soil and water, which results in long-term and composite damage to the environment.

Solutions to this challenge also require a systemic approach but can start with the simple inclusion of a separate facility and a cell for hazardous waste processing and burial in the currently projected new landfills of Yerevan and the regions of Gegharkunik and Kotayk. A mid- to long-term solution requires developing a comprehensive road map and implementation plan for hazardous waste management, which must be incorporated in the updated waste management strategy of Armenia and in the projected road map and strategy of the Extended Producers Responsibility (EPR).

 

Forests and Biodiversity

When we talk about biodiversity, our imagination takes us to Madagascar or the incredible rainforests of the Amazon basin. Yet few know that Armenia is ranked in the world’s top 25 biodiversity hotspots. Armenia’s physical geography spans from arid to subtropical, and elevations range from 400 to over 4000 meters above sea level. These conditions create small but very wealthy pockets of diverse and unique ecosystems strewn across the country. However, this natural wealth, including its most verdant habitat – the forests – have been overexploited over a number of decades. Armenia’s forests once covered 20% of the country’s territory, but today stand at 11%. The resulting loss of the rich biodiversity is documented in the Red Book. Poverty, among other factors, has been one of the greatest contributors to the depletion of these natural resources, as socio-economically vulnerable groups resort to illegal fishing, illegal logging and illegal hunting in the search for sustenance and income. This poverty is then exploited by organized crime, and we witness some of the most large-scale deforestation and overfishing in the country.

Today, as Armenia’s economy is further stressed due to post-war and COVID-19 induced decline, it is further exacerbated by labor migrants unable to travel (mostly to Russia) for work, stranded in the country and resorting to illegal logging.

Over the past two years, there were tangible successes in curbing illegal logging and illegal hunting/fishing due to better vertical oversight, surgical legislative amendments and better cooperation between policymaking bodies, inspectorates and law enforcement agencies. It is critical to continue efforts in all of these directions in order not to lose what had been achieved thus far. A systemic approach here is also needed in terms of developing infrastructure, skills and demand, whereby trees left standing become worth more if they were cut. This requires strategic investment and/or technical support not only for state-owned but also community- and privately-owned nurseries, active engagement of communities in the prevention of logging and hunting, and the provision of education and vocational training for new generations of foresters and forest rangers. Improvement of forest governance through the adoption of new forest management plans and effective practical oversight are also paramount, as well as the understanding in the upper echelons of the government that effective forest governance is a multidisciplinary and inter-agency endeavor, and requires both horizontal cooperation and vertical reporting.
Conclusion

Looking forward, Armenia has an incredible potential to tap into its natural resources sustainably and moreover ensure green economic growth – whether through attracting investments into its solar energy capacity or institutionalizing and commercializing its carbon sequestration potential. What is needed is visionary thinking, ambitious strategizing on green and climate-resilient economic growth, as well as effective, professional and technocratic governance.

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1-G20 nations collectively account for 78 per cent of all emissions, but only five G20 members have committed to a long-term zero emissions target. Source: https://unfccc.int/news/cut-global-emissions-by-76-percent-every-year-for-next-decade-to-meet-15degc-paris-target-un-report
2-This is because on the flip side, one of the biggest pressures imposed on the natural ecosystem is usually poverty, whereby the population uncontrollably exploits natural resources (e.g. deforestation).
3-Hazardous waste polygons are infrastructures designed for safe disposal, storage, burial and neutralization of hazardous waste materials, which are generated from industrial and municipal waste.