Nepal recently pulled itself back from the brink of state failure. As the dust of the demonstrations settle, it will be important for scholars, civil society leaders and others to assess not only the root causes of the conflict but also the indirect causes, such as environmental scarcity.
With analysis and reflection, leaders and security policy experts interested in countries with similar preconditions can potentially learn from the Nepali case and avoid unnecessary loss of life.
The term environmental scarcity incorporates several sources of scarcity: natural resource scarcity, population growth (leading to a reduction in per capita availability of a resource) and unequal resource distribution.
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 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. An eventual breakdown of the state is likely to follow.
Environmental scarcity and related issues aren't the sole cause of the conflict in Nepal, however they can't 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 concluded that 'resentment over discriminatory natural resource access is one of the underlying political causes' of the conflict in Nepal.
Richard Matthew and Bishnu Raj Upreti note that an increase in environmental stress throughout the Nepali countryside in combination with an increasing population, lead to 'acute insecurity and instability'. Indeed, peasants constitute approximately 90 percent of Nepal's population, many of who depend on agriculture, and thus secure land ownership to make a living. However, close to 69 percent of land holdings are less than one hectare, making it difficult to make a sustainable living.
Because the 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. As a result, the Maoists strategically and conveniently found peasants as a fertile group for their promises of better economic, social, cultural and political policies.
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, the capacity of the Nepali state as a function of 'legitimacy, internal coherence and responsiveness' led to civil violence and the eventual teetering on failure.
Clear definitions and indicators of state failure are few but variable. But the fact that the state provides few political goods to its citizens where the economic infrastructure has failed, the educational system is in shambles and where GDP per capita is in sharp decline, Nepal falls into this categorization.
But after the events of the past month perhaps Nepal is picking itself up from a hard fall. Whether it can pull itself up from the edge of state failure once and for all will remain to be seen. But if Nepal pulls it off, its experience will have lessons for other countries in the world. Whatever happens, one lesson is already clear: environmental scarcity issues should not be ignored when analysing direct and indirect causes to complex national conflicts.
Dr Fiona J Y Rotberg is Director of the Environmental Security in Asia Project at the Central Asia Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program at Uppsala University, Sweden.