Natural Hazards: A look at ecological threats and ways to address them

So how does the report score the severity of the ecological threat facing 178 independent countries and territories? It focuses on five things that can endanger the ecological stability of a society: food risk, water risk, rapid population growth, temperature anomalies, and natural disasters. The report also uses the IEP’s Positive Peace Index, which identifies the attitudes, institutions, and structures that ultimately create peaceful societies. Conversely, the absence of societal bedrock — such as an equitable distribution of goods, a well-functioning government, or a healthy business sector — can leave nations primed for conflict, to the point where all it takes is one final shock to ignite relentless violence. The report shows that ecological shocks can be that incendiary spark.

“Indicated throughout this report is the deep, deep cyclical relationship that exists between ecological degradation and levels of conflict around the world,” says Collins. He also notes that once violence has begun, it can actually worsen the ecological problems, like food or water shortages, that predated the conflict. “Eleven of the countries with the report’s worst scores are now in conflict,” says Collins. Most of these countries are located in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and the report highlights one particularly profound driver of their conflicts — food insecurity.

Since 2014, global food insecurity, which had been lessening for decades, has risen an alarming 44 percent, a situation further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Its steady resurgence didn’t occur in isolation; it was sometimes fueled by natural events, such as insufficient rainfall, or in many cases by sectarian conflicts. In South Sudan, these forces merged and have exacted a terrible toll. By 2018 — half a decade after civil war erupted between the South Sudanese government and insurgents — an estimated 190,000 people had been killed through direct warfare, and an additional 193,000 are believed to have died as a result of disruptions to the country’s fragile food production and health systems. Their food systems were already vulnerable to droughts and flooding, and they still haven’t recovered. As recently as 2020, about 85 percent of South Sudan’s population was struggling to find sufficient food on a daily basis.

Without intervention, global food insecurity is expected to get much worse over the next three decades. The Ecological Threat Report projects that by 2050, the number of people who are experiencing undernourishment — not getting enough food to sustain day-to-day physiological health — could rise by a staggering 45 percent. The broad global demand for food could also grow by more than 50 percent within this time frame. As ecological events like rising temperatures, earthquakes, or hurricanes exacerbate resource scarcity in vulnerable countries, the risk of conflict and societal collapse becomes more severe, and more liable to spill beyond borders.

This can already be seen today in the rate of forced displacements and migration occurring around the world. The report’s researchers found that in 2020, 82.4 million people were displaced — the highest number of global displacements on record, 1 in 94 people. It’s a tremendous shift from 2000, when 1 in 161 people worldwide had been displaced. But like the recent rebound of food insecurity, this surge also didn’t happen overnight. Forced displacements have been rising over the past nine years, as hot spot regions, identified by the report, reckon with worsening ecological deterioration, resource deficits, warfare, and, in several cases, significant population growth.

In the face of such massively worrying trends, how can one begin to promote peace and sustainability at a local level, let alone a regional one? Collins is quick to spotlight two of the Ecological Threat Report’s most salient policy recommendations for humanitarian agencies and organizations: thinking about ecological risk as a systemic problem, and empowering communities in ecologically vulnerable nations to become more resilient. This can be done through collaborative grassroots projects that focus on intersectional issues such as agriculture, economic prosperity, and human security.

Collins comes from a family of construction professionals, and before joining the IEP, he applied his family trade to humanitarian projects in developing nations, including Indonesia and Haiti, often in the wake of natural disasters. “Initially, a lot of this revolved around training programs for people who are seeking to enter or already in the construction sector,” he says. “Due to a number of social and institutional issues, construction quality is extremely low in a number of developing countries.” In Padang Alai, a town on the outskirts of West Sumatra’s capital city of Padang, Collins addressed this problem by working with community members to create a brickmaking cooperative, owned and managed by its members.

Rodriguez would adopt a similar approach in 2020 when building La Realidad. As she and her friends converted the setup of their Putumayo cacao orchard into an organic production, neighbors would drop by and ask why the group was doing all the “hard work” of regenerative growing techniques. Why not just spray the cacao trees with pesticides that would work faster than organic alternatives? “These questions created a conversation about why it was important for Putumayo residents to prioritize their homeland and not the global market,” Rodriguez recalls.