The changing reality of resource-based conflicts

Darius Mikulenas


By Paul Farley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Conflicts are not a new phenomenon, and people have been fighting each other since the inception of humanity. The only thing that has changed are the size of respective forces, available technology, and the reasons for the conflict. There has never been a shortage of reasons, however, and they ranged from ideological and religious beliefs, to ego-centric wish to increase ones prestige through acquiring new territories. The bloodshed, justified by the nobility of the goal at hand, has haunted us for generations, each and every time manifesting as a bigger and more brutal battle.

However despite what proclamations some governments may sound, battles fought over ideology are virtually gone. Whether it has been lauded that a particular battle will be fought for the protection of democratic values, or liberation of an oppressed nation, primary causes still lay within the realm of resources. Look back to World War II and the Winter War, fought by Soviet Union and Finland. What may come across as a retaliation by the Soviet Union against Finland, for refusing to join the USSR voluntarily, is also a case of resource based conflict. Finland’s Petsamo region has had an abundance of nickel deposits, which were strategically important for USSR. Its war machine had to be fed to sustain the momentum and push its armies forward, requiring additional resources and, in turn, new territory take overs, thus creating a closed loop.

In contemporary times, the theme is even more prominent. Wars are expensive to run, both from the economic and human life perspective. Diplomacy is the primary weapon and where a conflict does erupt, more often than not major powers merely supply the warring sides with military resources, creating a proxy war. As long as the benefits outweigh the costs, the game is fair. This is why in our energy-hungry world, resource based conflicts are and will be the primary form of conflict for the foreseeable future.

Senkaku Islands by Al Jazeera English (1)

By Al Jazeera English [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

We are unlikely to see full-scale wars in our time, since whilst imperfect, groupings such as NATO, and the military strength that major international players possess, make war simply too costly. Yet conflicts and tensions will remain. In contemporary times, China and Japan are involved in one of such situations – a dangerous stand-off over the Senkaku Islands. China, citing its historic rights to the territory, mentions little of the gas and oil reserves of this tiny 7 sq. km. plot of land. A similar situation has occurred between UK and Argentina over Falkland Islands. Whereas here a military conflict has already occurred, the situation reached a new level of intensity when it was discovered that the territory is likely to contain as much oil as the amount confirmed in Saudi Arabia. With the Argentina’s lack of steady supply of energy, such a territory would be nothing short of a miracle if they could secure it.

It is easy to think in terms of gas and oil – the main engines of today’s economy. However those resources, as important as they are, can be replaced. We are developing alternative fuels and new renewable energy sources to reduce our dependence. This permits a safer, more independent and strategically secure future. Yet some resources are both crucial and irreplaceable, such as water.

Whether you blame natural causes, global warming or irresponsible usage of this precious resource, water-related conflicts are a new reality. While these conflict have had their place in history for some time, especially in places were water is an expensive commodity, the amount of these conflict and their potential severity has certainly risen. The water availability per capita certainly confirms the trend of declining availability in most of the world. This is especially true in developing countries, where water needs are huge and ever growing due to economic growth. The damage that can be done by those in control of the water flow is great, as demonstrated by the Islamic State reducing flow of the Euphrates to Iraqi-held areas.

The nature of conflicts has certainly changed. Ideologies gave way to resources, which in turn may be becoming second to water. It is impossible to say with certainty that water related conflict will become the norm, but they will certainly be more frequent. Such changes introduce new questions that should be considered. Will territorial aggression remain the only type of aggression that warrants launching full-scale war? Can deprivation of a country of water be classified as an act of aggression? These questions are meant for future policy makers, but they should certainly be considered now, or we will risk failing to react in a timely manner when new dangers visit us.

4) Water – is there not enough? Enough but the biggest sources are being blocked off bad electric damns, especially in Asia, and poisoned by indroughtchustrial waste. Hardly possible to solve – although river may go theough several coutnries, the stretch that goes through a particualr state is that states property. It introduces a new source of conflict and an additional security paradigm, which may affect “global police states” as they migh have to get involved.

Especially in cases of rapidly growing nations, such as India and China, water trouble are already present.

One thing that we felt is abundant will likely cause interstate as well as intrastate conflicts in the future. Whether through the building of dams in China, thus robbing the countries of a steady supply downstream, or allowing factories to send downstream all their waste, reducing the amount of usable water, it is a new security risk that needs to be taken into account.

We should look at conflicts for what they are, not what they are portrayed to be or the solutions we apply will be in direct opposition to the causes.

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