One of the most common and devastating effects of armed conflict is the massive displacement of people fleeing violence and insecurity. Such large-scale population movements cause untold human suffering and disrupt economic activities. But they also severely damage the environment, particularly in arid or environmentally degraded regions. In Darfur, an assessment conducted this year by the United Nations Environment Programme found that the displacement of more than two million people since 2003 had caused severe deforestation, land degradation and overexploitation of groundwater resources around the larger camps for displaced persons.
Integrating environmental concerns into relief and security operations requires us to engage all relevant actors in Government, the UN family, non-governmental organizations and the donor community. Since 1995, UNEP has conducted post-conflict assessments and provided technical support to help mitigate environmental risks in more than 20 countries.
Today, UNEP is working with the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and UN partners to mitigate the impact of displacement in the eastern part of the country, where several camps have recently been established to shelter people fleeing instability in North Kivu. These settlements are located on the boundary of the Virunga National Park, a World Heritage Site that is home to half the total remaining population of mountain gorillas -- the rarest and most endangered of the great apes. Without sound environmental management, the influx of people poses a number of risks for the area's vulnerable ecosystems, including the uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources to meet basic sustenance and energy needs. UNEP and its partners are helping to develop sustainable livelihood options for the displaced communities in the area, and increase local capacity to prevent or remedy the ecological impact of displacement.
UNEP has successfully carried out similar work in Liberia, where an estimated 800,000 people -- one-quarter of the population -- were forced to leave their homes during almost 14 years of conflict, leading to serious degradation forests, land and watercourses in and around the sites used for camps and settlements. UNEP's efforts were supplemented by other entities such as the United Nations Mission in Liberia, which incorporated an environmental and natural resources unit into its operations.
Taking ecological considerations into account is crucial if we are to avoid longer-term environmental problems that can undermine security and development, and lead to further cycles of conflict and displacement. That is why, six years ago, the United Nations General Assembly established the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. On this Day, let us renew our commitment to that mission.