Musings on scarcity of resources and political strifes

The most important prerequisite of social stability and economic development in a country or region is political stability and good governance. In times of strives, conflicts and wars, the only priority for the society and its people is a day-to-day survival and struggle for achievement of piece. Every other matter has a lesser priority… Maslow’s Pyramid, that is.

“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”  – Henry David Thoreau

While the immediate reaction and focus of any potentially conflict-rich situation is leave aside other concerns besides security and peace, it must be nonetheless stressed that such situations result mostly from social, cultural, economic or plain human-nature specific reasons. Greed, egoism, arrogance, self-indulgence. These are human traits common to individuals. What is not common and desirable is when they mould into a group-think and become directed towards an end at the detriment of moral values and traditions of a society.

History is a witness to a great number of wars that have started as a result of scarcity of resources. Water, land and natural resources attracted greedy and powerful in their quest for self-fulfillment and enrichment like magnet attract metal. Wars ensued; innocent people died; lands were plundered.

Three-quarters of all wars since 1945 have been within countries rather than between them, and the vast majority of these conflicts have occurred in the world’s poorest nations. Wars and other violent conflicts have killed some 40 million people since 1945, and as many people may have died as a result of civil strife since 1980 as were killed in the First World War. Although the number of internal wars peaked in the early 1990s and has been declining slowly ever since, they remain a scourge on humanity. Armed conflicts have crippled the prospect for a better life in many developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, by destroying essential infrastructure, decimating social trust, encouraging human and capital flight, exacerbating food shortages, spreading disease, and diverting precious financial resources toward military spending.

Although there is no single cause of strife or war, a growing number of scholars suggest that rapid population growth, environmental degradation, and competition over natural resources play important causal roles in many of these conflicts. Recent quantitative studies analyzing the correlates of internal and external wars from the 1950s to the present indicate that population size and population density are significant risk factors. In terms of environmental factors, recent statistical work indicates that countries highly dependent on natural resources, as well as those experiencing high rates of deforestation and soil degradation, and low per capita availability of arable land and freshwater, have higher-than-average risks of falling into turmoil. In short, many researchers now conclude that it is impossible to fully understand the patterns and dynamics of modern conflicts without considering their demographic and environmental dimensions.

The past century witnessed unprecedented population growth, economic development, and environmental stress, changes that continue to this day. From 1900 to 2000 world population grew from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion. Since 1950 alone 3.5 billion people have been added to the planet, with 85% of this increase occurring in developing and transition countries. Worldwide population growth rates peaked in the late 1960s at around 2% a year, but the current rate of 1.2% still represents a net addition of 77 million people per year.

Such rapid demographic and economic changes over the past century have placed severe and accelerating pressures on natural resources and planetary life-support systems. The traditional Malthusian notion that exponential population growth alone drives strains on the environment has long been refuted; no serious thinkers, including neo-Malthusians, now maintain that human-induced environmental changes are a mere function of numbers. Rather, neo-Malthusians argue that the relationship between population growth and the environment is mediated by consumption habits, and by the technologies used to extract natural resources and provide goods and services.

Neo-Malthusians cite the 1969 war between El-Salvador and Honduras as a classic example of a scarcity induced conflict. The conflict became known as the Soccer War and lasted only 100 hours, during which several thousand people died on both sides. One of the main causes of this war was the scarcity of arable land. The sources of the shortage were population growth, erosion and unequal land distribution. A similar scarcity of arable land resonated in the minds of Ethiopians when their then Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted in 1974. The provisional Ethiopian government, the Dergue, failed to improve conditions resulting in large migrations of Ethiopians into a contested region on the Somali border, which in turn precipitated the Ogaden War of 1977. The scarcity of arable land was also a contributing cause of the violent dispute between Senegal and Mauritania in 1989. The conflict focused on Senegal River, which demarcated the border between the two. In this case, it was shown that the cause of land scarcity was population growth and desertification, along with lack of adequate quantities of fresh water.

Numerous signs suggest that the combined effects of unsustainable consumption, population growth, and extreme poverty are taking their toll on the environment. More natural resources have been consumed since the end of the WW2 than in all human history to that point. The consumption of nonrenewable resources has significantly increased, although it has risen at a slower rate than population and economic growth as a result of changes in technology. The global consumption of fossil fuels (which account for 77% of all energy use) in 2003 was 4.7 times the level it was in 1950.

“Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water,”  – Ismail Serageldin,  Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and former World Bank Vice President

In the eyes of a future observer, what will characterize the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa? Will the future mirror the past or, as suggested by the quote above, are significant changes on the horizon? In the past, struggles over territory, ideology, colonialism, nationalism, religion, and oil have defined the region. While it is clear that many of those sources of conflict remain salient today, future war in the Middle East and North Africa also will be increasingly influenced by economic and demographic trends that do not bode well for the region.

By 2025, world population is projected to reach eight billion. As a global figure, this number is troubling enough; however, over 90% of the projected growth will take place in developing countries in which the vast majority of the population is dependent on local renewable resources. For instance, World Bank estimates place the present annual growth rate in the Middle East and North Africa at 1.9% versus a worldwide average of 1.4%. In most of these countries, these precious renewable resources are controlled by small segments of the domestic political elite, leaving less and less to the majority of the population. As a result, if present population and economic trends continue, many future conflicts throughout the region will be directly linked to what researchers term “environmental scarcity”— the scarcity of renewable resources such as arable land, forests, and fresh water.