Natural resource scarcity will be a significant threat to national and global security in the coming decades, and is intricately linked with climate change. The WTO defines natural resources as “materials that exist in the natural environment that are both scarce and economically useful for production or consumption, either in their raw state or after a minimal amount of processing.” Scarcity of water, food, and other resources such as oil and minerals could lead to hunger, mass migration, and conflict. While this may not be the foremost cause of conflicts, it will be – and already has been – an underlying cause of global insecurity. In March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that “competition and scarcity involving natural resources” was a threat on par with global terrorism, cyberwar, and nuclear proliferation.
Natural resource scarcity is already affecting regional and national security in the form of water insecurity. Water policy is crucial to the future of the Middle East and North Africa with widespread drought acting as a “threat multiplier” in the events leading up to the Arab Uprisings. An E3G report on the region projects that temperatures will rise faster than the global average, creating additional water stress and crop failures. Globally, there are approximately 1.2 billion people facing water scarcity; the IPCC estimates that an additional 80-100 million people will be exposed to water stress by 2025. This is likely to continue, if not get worse, as the UN reports that global water use has been growing at twice the speed of population in the past century.
The idea of wars over water has been largely dismissed in the academic community after Dr. Aaron Wolf’s research. This being said, however, there is evidence that it has been a factor in past conflicts, and it cannot be excluded as a factor in future conflicts. The UNEP’s 2009 reported: “In Darfur, recurrent drought, increased demographic pressures, and political marginalization are among the forces that have pushed the region into a spiral of lawlessness and violence.” Conflict could break out in the future in regional water “hotspots.” In response to a possible dam built by upstream Ethiopia, Egypt declared access to the Nile River a “national interest” and ex-President Morsi’s government threatened war. Dam projects in and around the Tibetan Plateau have also caused tensions between China and its downstream neighbors – Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, and Vietnam. While China tends to prevail in regional disputes, it may face more resistance in the future as water becomes more scarce, as seen with Myanmar’s recent decision to cancel a Chinese-funded dam project on the Irrawaddy River.
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