#05 Securing Peace
Erica Gies

Ecosystem Stewardship - Key to Avoiding Conflict Over Resource Scarcity

Humans are animals, something we often try to forget. But like any living being, our drive for survival is innate. That's why it's long been conventional wisdom that fights over critical resources like food and water are human nature, the cause of many wars.

It's actually a bit more complicated than that. Development experts say that resource scarcity can contribute to violent conflict, but weak government and institutions is a more predictable indicator. That's because weak states lack the social infrastructure to innovate solutions. Interestingly, resource surpluses can also spur violence, in the infamous "resource curse" scenario, as the allure of big profits draws more competition to control the resource, increasing the likelihood of violent conflict.

The strength of our institutions matter because we are social animals. Nevertheless, we must never forget that we are part of nature, not above it, and therefore utterly reliant upon the ecosystems that sustain us. But our booming population and our slavishness to markets over common sense resource management lead to an exploitative sensibility that is unsustainable. Our life-giving infrastructure, Earth's environment, is suffering at our hands a death a by a thousand cuts. And the environmental damage that we cause — soil degradation, deforestation, water scarcity — reduces the supply of critical resources, leading to potential conflict.

Environmental degradation

Consider soil diminishment. The invention of agriculture enabled our population boom, allowing us to store surplus food and to allocate some humans to activities other than procuring food. But the way we practice it today is unsustainable. Industrial agriculture carpet bombs every living nematode and springtail in the soil with pesticides. Monoculture and mechanized harvesting erodes soil.

According to a recent report from Earth Policy Institute, grain production is falling as a result of soil erosion.

The thin layer of topsoil that covers much of the Earth's land surface is the foundation of civilization. As long as soil erosion on cropland does not exceed new soil formation, all is well. But once it does, it leads to falling soil fertility and eventually to land abandonment. As countries lose their topsoil through overgrazing, overplowing, or deforestation, they eventually lose the capacity to feed themselves. Among those facing this problem are Lesotho, Haiti, Mongolia, and North Korea.

Sixteen percent of the arable land in current use is degraded, according Food and Agricultural Organization and the U.N. Environment Programme.

We are also allocating cropland to other uses, including urbanization, livestock, timber, carbon sequestration, and biofuels. We saw a stark example of the consequences of such reallocations in 2008, when corn prices spiked because a significant portion of U.S.-grown corn was diverted to biofuels. Poor people in Mexico could not afford tortillas. "At least 61 countries experienced unrest as a result of price inflation; in 38 countries, these protests were violent," wrote Alex Evans in the 2011 World Development Report. He also notes that competition for land was a contributing factor to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, and the conflict in Darfur.

Nor is resource scarcity–driven violence solely a phenomenon of the developing world. In 2001, conflicts over water between farmers and Native American fishermen led to gun violence in the Klamath basin in California and Oregon. Lack of access to decent jobs — that would provide the ability to buy food and water — was a key factor in the Arab Spring, the recent London riots, and similar unrest around Paris in 2005.

Now our environmental impacts have gone global. Climate change and ocean acidification are also affecting livelihoods, for example, impacting the types of crops that can be cultivated. Sea level rise is expected to cause flooding, storm damage, and inundation of wetlands along low-lying coasts worldwide.

Aside from losing habitable and arable land, climate change means we can't count on resources — particularly water — as we have before. During the twentieth century, water managers planned for the future based upon the amount of water natural systems have provided in the past. But climate models predict greater fluctuations in watershed flows, less snowfall, earlier snow melt, rising temperatures in water bodies, altered stream channels and floodplains, and saltwater intrusion. Indeed, we are already starting to see evidence of these changes: massive floods this year along the U.S. Missouri River and in Queensland, Australia, and epic droughts in Texas and the Horn of Africa are harbingers of a new normal.

By 2030, 47 percent of people worldwide will be living in areas with water scarcity, according to a 2009 UNESCO report. Of particular concern are people whose current water supply is dependent upon quickly melting glaciers. Ice in the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and the Tibetan Plateau provide water to 1.3 billion people living along Asia's famous rivers: the Mekong, Irrawaddy, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Yellow. Likewise, the South American Andes Mountains provide water to 30 million people in Bolivia, Ecuador, and neighboring countries.

Environmental change, from sea-level rise that physically displaces people to degradation that diminishes available resources, is expected to prompt migration. As people from diminished areas push into stable areas, they will put pressure on that area's resources, creating a domino effect of instability. Plus overcrowding and violent conflict both contribute to environmental degradation, creating a vicious cycle of scarcity and conflict. Climate change could spur violent conflict in countries with existing economic, social and political problems. A 2007 report from International Alert estimated that to be 46 countries, home to 2.7 billion people.


Overpopulation is a touchy topic because the drive to reproduce is also core to our raison d'être as animals on Earth. But we've arguably surpassed the carrying capacity of Earth for humans — certainly the resource-hungry, developed world kind. While it is becoming fashionable in the developed world to recycle, eat organic, buy locally, commute by bicycle, such measures don't offset a penchant for international vacations and electronic gadgetry that come with a heavy environmental footprint. The bottom line is that more humans means fewer resources for each one and the need to live in closer proximity, both of which increase the opportunity for conflict.

Global population growth is projected to rise from nearly 7 billiontoday to around 9.1 billion in 2050. While population growth has slowed since its peak in 1963, it continues to boom in low-income countries, many of which have weak governments and institutions and are potentially unstable.

When animals have population explosions, nature corrects it. In the United States, when top predators like wolves were extirpated, deer populations jumped, then crashed via mass starvations. We may think we're too clever to avoid that fate. In the 1960s scientists engineered the "green revolution" to produce higher crop yields to feed our booming population. But that was a stopgap measure. Evans writes:

The yield increases of the 20th century 'Green Revolution' have shown diminishing returns in recent years: average productivity growth rates of 2.0 percent between 1970 and 1990 fell to 1.1 percent between 1990 and 2007 and are projected to continue to decline, and global food consumption outstripped production in seven of the eight years between 2000 and 2008.

There is a physical limit to how many humans the Earth can support. While humanity may survive for centuries, we are beginning to see a decline in the quality of life. Even in the United States, with its large area and relatively small population, urban sprawl is increasing commutes, isolating us from our neighbors, and making the landscape uninviting for exercise or human-powered transportation. Such stressors lead to high rates of obesity, road rage, and depression.

Extreme inequality

Aside from resource scarcity and weak government, another key indicator of conflict is unequal resource distribution. When needy people can see a critical resource concentrated in the hands of a few or priced out of reach, they get angry, such as when people rioted in response to water privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2000. Globalization provides a modern spin on this phenomenon: countries are leasing land to other countries. So as local people struggle, they see their local resources exported to line the pockets of a few. Evans writes:

The March 2009 coup d'etat in Madagascar, for example, followed international media reports that the government had leased one half of the country's arable land to a South Korean company; the new President's first act was to cancel the contract.

Such cross-border resentments apply to energy projects as well. Guyana and Peru are getting ready to sell their hydropower to Brazil, a move that would flood indigenous land and bring new infrastructure and forest-cutting people into the rainforest. The proposed Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River in Laos would supply power to China, Thailand, and Vietnam while harming local fishing livelihoods.

Legal, corporate conflicts

Conflicts over resource scarcity aren't always expressed via violence. Sometimes people turn to the courts or political pressure.

For example, in 2007, a drought in the southeastern United States provoked a fierce court battle among the states of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama over the waters of Lake Lanier. A recent ruling favored Georgia, but the states continue to fight.

Corporations are also beginning to feel the pinch of resource scarcity. Coca-cola infamously overextracted groundwater in India, diminishing the water available to already struggling farmers. NGOs applied intense pressure, forcing Coca-Cola to fight legal and legislative battles across India. In the state of Kerala, local officials shut down a million Coke bottling plant in March 2004.

Other companies such as Pepsi and General Mills, taking a lesson from that spectacle, are making proactive steps to secure the water and crops they need for their supply chains, such as reducing water consumption and facilitating the organization of small growers into larger coalitions to sell to them.

Even without serious conflict, water shortages can constrain economic growth, forcing farmers to reduce planting area and developers to rethink where they will build. In California, water limitation is dictating which types of energy plants will be built. The state also passed a law in 2001 that makes project approval dependent upon whether developers can provide at least 20 years' worth of water for their projects.

Peaceful solutions

To secure peace around resource scarcity means striving for balance to avoid resource bottlenecks. First we need to address our core problem: we can slow population growth by providing all women access to birth control and education. The direct relationship between a woman's education level and the number of children she has is well-established. Better-educated women have higher socioeconomic status and fewer children. And families are a direct microcosm of the globe; those with fewer children are able to devote more resources to each one, resulting in better health, education, and opportunity for socioeconomic advancement.

Beyond reducing our sheer numbers, we must overhaul our economic system to recognize and value ecological stewardship. Affluent people consume far more water, food, and resources than their counterparts in the developing world. Also due to developed world demand, global water use has been growing nearly twice as fast as population for more than a century and will continue to do so, according to the U.N. Development Program. And as emerging economies with giant populations — China, India, Brazil — produce more affluent consumers, resources will come under even more pressure.

At the root of this unsustainable overconsumption is our economic model based that's based upon continual growth. Businesses have made vast profits by producing goods made from free or nearly free natural resources. This cannot go on indefinitely, as resources are finite. An economic system that prioritizes the short-term goal of ever-increasing quarterly profits over sustainability is bound to experience pain as pressures on resources increase. Globalization and the rise of corporate power also lead to greater income disparity, which foments unrest.

Instead, we need to reorder our economic system by assigning value to maintaining ecosystem health. Some companies and governments are already doing triple bottom line reporting, internalizing currently externalized costs like pollution, and increasing environmental stewardship and fair employee relations through water and carbon footprinting and corporate social responsibility reporting. But we need these practices to become standard operating procedure. In such a scenario, virgin material would cost a premium, making recycling and closed-loop manufacturing the economic option.

Such an economic system would recognize that ecosystems also need resources: adequate water, fish, nutrients, and space to survive. When we starve or soil ecosystems, they fail. We then lose all the uncounted services those ecosystems supply: clean water and air, rainfall generation and storage, biodiversity, protection against storm surges, nursery habitat for food fish, and much more.

We human animals are a part of the environment and utterly dependent upon it. Protecting the sustainability of critical resources is something indigenous people the world over built into their cultures. People who live close to the land understand it viscerally and can see the direct impacts their actions have upon it. In our modern society, we've lost that awareness. That is the crux of resource scarcity.

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