It has become apparent that real piracy is far different from the lighthearted subject sometimes portrayed in popular culture, and the problem is growing much worse. Besides the tragic cost in lives, the U.S., many other nations and NATO spent roughly $2 billion combined last year to safeguard the busy international sea lanes off the Horn of Africa from Somali pirates. According to the International Maritime Bureau, "hijackings off the coast of Somalia accounted for 92% of all ship seizures last year," and the price tag does not include the costs of reallocating critical military resources.
Sadly, much of this could have been avoided had the world made a stronger commitment to conservation and environmental protection years earlier. Somalia provides a classic example of how problems related to poverty and the environment are increasingly evolving into traditional international security risks.
For example, the issue of overfishing, particularly by foreign vessels, was very low on the international community's radar when the government of Somalia collapsed in the 1990s.The combination of rich fishing opportunities and a complete inability of the government to police its waters drew fleets from countries far and near, setting the stage for the instability to come. The greatest harm was done by European and Asian vessels that plundered the fisheries off Somalia's coast.
Once Somalia's fish populations were depleted, the international ships moved on. But local fishermen obviously could not. As economies along the coast collapsed, whole communities of Somalis became jobless, hungry and willing to exploit the only assets they had: boats with a strategic launching point into one of the world's most important commercial sea lanes. And what would have seemed unthinkable to many Somali villagers just a short time before — transforming small fishing boats into pirate vessels — has since become a way of life.
Piracy has made the waters off eastern Africa the bane of international trade, threatening sea travel in the region for oil tankers, cargo carriers, cruise ships and private boats alike. Indeed, according to International Marine Bureau statistics, more than 30 vessels with more than 700 crew members and passengers combined are being held hostage by Somali pirates.
Though overfishing is not the sole cause of the increase in Somali piracy, it is undeniable that the pillaging of local fish populations, largely by foreign vessels, played a key role. Now the burden for resolving this conflict has been placed at the feet of the world's major navies, including that of the U.S.
During my 20 years of military service in some of the toughest corners of the world, my job was to translate how developments in these little-known areas could threaten U.S. national security. I've seen how, for example, decades of soil mismanagement and drought in Sudan played a key role in displacing populations and magnifying existing ethnic, religious and political tensions.
These dynamics are not limited to Africa. For instance, numerous experts have decried how poor land-management decisions have denuded Haiti and contributed to poverty and political instability, complicating ongoing earthquake recovery efforts.
This new century is teaching us that traditional security tools are far from the only weapons we have to confront today's challenges. Our nation's efforts to safeguard the environment around the world also play a critical role in protecting our security and reducing future burdens on our military. If we are to stop future environmental problems from evolving into full-blown national security problems, we must find ways to better leverage all of our foreign policy tools.
Leaders in Washington could take a huge step forward in this effort by building on a bipartisan proposal introduced last year in Congress to create an integrated international conservation strategy for the United States. This would make existing international conservation programs of the U.S. government more focused and strategic, allowing military professionals to consider ways that our efforts and those of civilians can benefit each other.
The power of our country lies not only in our military might, but also in our knowledge and ingenuity. A foreign policy that more intelligently advances conservation and environmentally sustainable development could proactively address potential security threats before they evolve into conflicts that cost both American lives and treasure.
Shannon Beebe is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and coauthor of "The Ultimate Weapon Is No Weapon: Human Security and the New Rules of War and Peace." The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.