News & Politics

Bitter Disputes Loom Over Global Resources

Growth and prosperity, expansion and new technology, all translate into unprecedented demand on natural resources. Unless international bodies come up with equitable methods for sharing what we have, some particularly bitter contests seem likely.
A just-released report by the National Intelligence Council, "Global Trends 2015," suggests that we are about to face a fundamental shift in international affairs -- a world divided not so much by politics and ideology as by increasingly acrid disputes over access to key supplies of vital resources.

The most bitter contests will concern drinking water, but sharp struggles are also likely over valuable sources of oil, natural gas, minerals, food and timber.

The growing significance of resources was strikingly evident in the past year -- in Africa, struggles over land (Zimbabwe), minerals (Congo), and diamonds (Angola and Sierra Leone) grew in intensity. In Europe, oil shortages produced a wave of strikes and protests, paralyzing London and other major cities. In many parts of the United States, shortages of electricity and natural gas are producing hardship and havoc.

Resource shortages have, of course, long played a role in world affairs. Many conflicts recorded in the Old Testament revolve around access to water, and the settlement of the Americas was largely driven by Europe's growing need for food and other materials.

Struggles over access to oil played a central role in the dynamics of both World Wars. During the Cold War, such concerns were largely overshadowed by political and ideological competition, but with the Cold War over, resource issues have again assumed great importance.

Globalization is one vital factor driving the concern with resource issues because it is quickening the pace of industrialization in many places and so increasing demand for energy, minerals, building materials and other commodities.

Globalization is also contributing to the emergence of a global middle class -- newly-affluent families who add to the strain on materials, as they acquire air conditioners, computers, washing machines, automobiles and other resource-intensive devices.

"In many urban centers, such as Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Shanghai and Mumbai, car ownership is among the first symbols of emerging prosperity," the Department of Energy reported last year. The global automobile fleet is expected to grow by about two-thirds over the next 20 years, producing a mammoth demand for iron, aluminum, chromium and gasoline, among other materials.

Global population growth will add to the pressures induced by globalization. For affluent countries, where population growth rates are low, this will not produce unbearable strains; but for the poorer countries, where growth rates are high, significant problems will arise, especially with respect to food supplies. Hundreds of millions of people will face starvation or severe malnutrition in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Rapid urbanization in developing areas will compound these problems. "Global Trends 2015" predicts Jakarta's population will jump from 9.5 million to 21.2 people between now and 2015, while Lagos will climb from 12.2 million to 24.4 million. Because "megacities" of this size consume far more energy, water and other materials than the villages they replace, resource pressures will intensify throughout the world.

New technologies are likely to relieve many of these pressures. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells, for example, will significantly reduce the need for oil. But new technology will also add to the pressures on resources: the rise of the Internet has greatly increased the demand for electricity (thus adding to California's current energy woes), while fuel cells will require large quantities of platinum.

As global demand for resources grows, states and societies will increasingly compete for access to vital supplies. Wealthier countries will, of course, employ their superior purchasing power, but many nations will be hit hard, and this could generate political demands for other forms of relief. This could lead to intensified conflict within societies as well as between nations.

In most instances, governments will seek to resolve these disputes peacefully. In the Jordan and Nile River basins, for example, national water officials have developed plans for using existing supplies more efficiently. But ingrained suspicions and an unwillingness to surrender historical advantages have undermined many of these efforts, so that the risk of conflict over water in the Middle East is now greater than ever. And the growing demand for energy will increase the risk of strife in the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea basin and the South China Sea.

If conflicts over vital materials are to be averted, the international community must pay much greater attention to the problems associated with ever-increasing resource consumption. These problems can be managed effectively -- if nations work together in alleviating global resource pressures.
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