Nepal: Environmental Scarcity and State Failure

Posted in Asia | 24-May-06 | Author: Fiona Rotberg

Dr. Fiona J. Y. Rotberg is WSN Editor Environmental Security Issues.

Uppsala, Sweden

Nepal recently pulled itself back from the brink of state failure. As the dust of recent violent demonstrations settles, it will be important for scholars, civil society leaders and others to assess not only the root causes of the Nepali conflict, but also the indirect causes, such as environmental scarcity, that led to near state failure. With analysis and reflection, leaders and international security policy experts with interests in countries that have similar preconditions, can potentially learn from the Nepali case, and avoid thousands of unneeded lost lives.

Environmental scarcity incorporates several sources of scarcity into one term: natural resource scarcity; population growth (which leads to a reduction in per capita availability of a resource); and unequal resource distribution (such as unequal land holdings, with more in the hands of elites, for example).

The increase in environmental scarcity is linked both to the decline of the state’s capacity to secure basic public goods and an increase in civil violence (the Maoist insurgency) and as a result, in the Nepali case, its state was very close to abject failure. Because environmental scarcity causes economic deprivation, it in turn causes institutional disruption, and civil strife; and an eventual breakdown of the state is likely to follow.

This is not to suggest that environmental scarcity and related issues are the sole cause of the recent conflict in Nepal, but rather that they can not be ignored and must be incorporated into political, social, economic, and other analyses of the conflict. For example, natural resource scarcity, connected to unequal access to natural resources, is one of the central political causes of the Maoist insurgency. A recent study (May 2006) commissioned by USAID, similarly concluded that “resentment over discriminatory natural resource access is one of the underlying political causes” of the conflict in Nepal.

The increase in environmental stress throughout the Nepali country side, in combination with an increasing population, helped to lead to “acute insecurity and instability”, as pointed out by Dr. Richard Matthew and Bishnu Raj Upreti. Indeed, peasants constitute approximately 90% of Nepal’s population, many of whom depend on agriculture, and thus secure land ownership to make a living. However, close to 69% of land holdings are less than one hectare, making it difficult to make a sustainable living.

Because the rich and elite class has traditionally had a loud and successful voice in policy making in Nepal, they have been able to maintain dominance and keep the peasants at the low end of the class (and caste) system. And as a result, Maoists strategically and conveniently found peasants, as a group, a useful set of ears to fertilize their promises of better economic, social, cultural, and political policies to benefit all Nepalese.

The lack of the monarch’s legitimacy and its inability to cope with both the growing insurgency and the environmental pressures put on the Nepali population helped lead the way to near and total state disarray. Thus, Nepal’s state capacity, as a function of “legitimacy, internal coherence, and responsiveness” as aptly defined by Dr. Homer-Dixon at the University of Toronto, certainly led to civil violence and the eventual teetering on failure.

Clear definitions and indicators of state failure are few, but variable. When using concepts found within the definition put forth by Dr. Robert Rotberg at Harvard University, that a failed state provides few “political goods” to its citizens, and where “the economic infrastructure has failed…the educational system is in shambles…” and where “GDP per capita is in a precipitous decline”, and “a very rich minority…takes advantage of the failed system”, Nepal has fallen into this categorization. But perhaps Nepal is now picking itself up from a hard fall, albeit with bumps and stops. Whether Nepal can manage to pull itself up from the edge of state failure, once and for all, will remain to be seen by the world. If Nepal can do so, it will benefit the world, helping to prevent further potential cross border conflicts.

If, in contrast, a successful nation state, by definition, does deliver political goods such as human security and has in place secure methods to ensure equal access to environmental goods, Nepal must act quickly to become and remain in the club of nation states. Whichever path Nepal takes, a lesson can be learned within the scholarly and policy communities alike, that environmental scarcity issues should not be ignored when analyzing direct and indirect causes to complex national conflicts.

Dr. Fiona J.Y. Rotberg is the Director of the Environmental Security in Asia Project at the Central Asia Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program at Uppsala University, Sweden.