The Way We Think About Environmental Issues is Wrong

Alienor Hammer

While environmental issues are diverse in nature, one of the main reasons for their recurrence is our inability to approach them correctly. Natural catastrophes are striking harder, biodiversity extinction is accelerating, and sea levels are rising. Only rare success stories exist amidst the ever-increasing number of unresolved environmental issues threatening our planet. Every time an environment-related issue is identified, mitigation efforts are targeted at reducing the environmental hazard, but do not address the structural inequalities that place individuals in a position of vulnerability in the first place.

Take natural disasters, for example: most frequently impacted countries are developing states, like Indonesia, hit twice by a typhoon in 2018. The geographical location makes this country highly vulnerable to tropical storms and tsunamis, yet the severe impact of these disasters is exacerbated by the country’s lack of infrastructure and weak institutional framework.

A catastrophe is made up of both exposure and existing vulnerability, which is why developing countries are so severely effected and recover so slowly. The political, social and economic conditions of the country, coupled with their geography, are the culprit, not the catastrophe event in itself. The constant decision to push back the needs of the poorer and most marginal groups are also the culprit, not the catastrophe event in itself (Shetty, 2011). Yet only recently have disaster mitigation programs started to tackle prevention to build resilience. The catastrophic effects of the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, for example, was exacerbated by corruption, poor infrastructure and generalized uncertainty faced by Haitians on a daily basis.

Rethinking disaster prevention policy requires us to ask one question: to what extent are the effects of a climate disaster owed solely to environmental reasons? In exploring this question, we must face the power asymmetries that exist on the ground and the forms of inequality that exist subtly, which always result in one group having the upper hand over the other.

The Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, in the south of the country, set the stage for an interstate dispute over the waters of the Cauvery river, which they share. It is a centuries old conflict that has been taken to the Supreme Court and to the streets, unresolved despite court rulings (The Economist, 2016).

Public discourse over this issue fails to address the power imbalance between both states as competing actors in the negotiating table. The power asymmetry is not straightforward, stemming from geography and history alike. Geographically, the state of Karnataka has the upper hand, as the state sits on the river’s upstream, hence allowing it to use as much water as it requires. Historically, however, Tamil Nadu has the upper hand, as it benefits from a colonial-era agreement that endowed the state with beneficial terms (Anand, 2007).

The legal framework is aligned with colonial allocations, which are contested by Karnataka where water demand has grown significantly due to agricultural modernisation (Swain, 1998). Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, is not ready to drop these allocations, since they work in its favour. Not considering the power relations at play here locks the dispute in a never-ending conflict over water quantities which are legacies of an outdated system, rather than a representation of present complexities, which evidence a changing climate.

In this balance of power, a third actor must be considered: small-scale, poor farmers suffering from a lack of water that is not just a consequence of South Indian environmental conditions. Lack of water is broadly owed the excessive amounts used for agriculture, as farmers turned to water-intensive cash crops. Even this, however, can’t be disentangled from broader structures, as this form of land exploitation was adopted during colonial times as a way for the Empire to increase the locals’ dependency on their complex irrigation infrastructure. Building a more nuanced narrative over the question of access to water in the Cauvery river shines a light over a complex network of factors influencing what was seemingly solely an environmental struggle.

And finally, what does this mean for the most vulnerable? Small-scale farmers who rely on cash crops to make a living are turned even more vulnerable, since their water needs are not fulfilled. In the context of the Cauvery dispute, politicians from different states should come together and discuss based on the needs of their states, overcoming legal frameworks developed during colonial times in favour of new ones, representing today’s conditions. The most vulnerable should also be included in the talks: members of the most marginalised communities should be present at the talks, to accurately portray their needs. Collaboration should always start from acknowledging power relations and vulnerability, a necessary first step in rectifying inequality and building resilience for all.


This article was first published as part of LSESU Amnesty International Society’s annual human rights journal “A Climate of Change.”


Works Cited

Anand, P.B. (2007) Capability, sustainability, and collective action: an examination of a river water dispute. Journal of Human Development, 8(1), pp.109-132.

Shetty, S. (2011). Human Rights and Natural Disasters: Mitigating or Exacerbating the Damage?. Global Policy, 2(3), 334-336.

Swain, A. (1998) Fight for the last drop: Inter-state river disputes in India. Contemporary South Asia, 7(2), pp.167-180.

The Economist (2016) A kink in the hose [online] Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/asia/2016/09/17/a-kink-in-the-hose

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