Ensuring resource security: From a local problem to a global challenge

Why Precious Is Strategic

Increasingly, ensuring resource security will go from being a local problem to a global problem

Brahma Chellaney

The Times of India, March 30, 2010

Water, food, energy and minerals are highly strategic resources. They are essential to human development and, in the case of water and food, to human survival. Food production is, meanwhile, closely intertwined with water and energy, while water and energy, for their part, are intimately linked to climate change. While the way we produce and consume energy makes up about two-thirds of all human-induced greenhouse gases, the availability of water resources will be directly affected by global warming. 

Growing populations, rising affluence, changing diets and the demands of development have already, however, placed significant pressure upon these strategic resources. The global food system is already struggling to meet the present demand for food, yet the World Bank projects a rise of 50 per cent in global demand for food by 2030. To grow more food will require more water – a resource now also under great strain, as pollution is threatening the world’s freshwater resources. 

The 2030 Water Resources Group, a consortium of private-social sector organisations, has pointed to a growing "water gap" in which global demand for water will be 40 per cent more than supply by 2030. Today, agriculture alone accounts for approximately 3,100 billion cubic metres or 71 per cent of global water withdrawals; by 2030, without water-efficiency gains, such withdrawals will increase to 4,500 billion m3. Water withdrawals by industry are projected to rise from 16 per cent of today’s global demand to 22 per cent in 2030, with the greatest growth in use coming from China, the world’s factory. 

As for energy, the imperative to combat global warming goes against the current trends of rising consumption of energy, much of it produced with fossil fuel. Such is Asia’s appetite for energy that its share of global consumption is projected to almost double over the next 20 years – to about 48 per cent for oil and 22 per cent for natural gas. Yet, given its limited oil and gas reserves, Asia is particularly vulnerable to sudden supply shortage or disruption. 

A further aspect regarding competition over resources is the intensification of resource geopolitics. Europe, for example, has worked hard to shape the direction of some of the Caspian Basin and Central Asian oil and gas pipelines because it has a stake in the issue of the routing. If Central Asian and Caspian Sea energy supplies are routed to the European market, that would help Europe diversify its imports and ease its dependence on Russia. 

Within Asia, China has emerged as a key player in pipeline politics. Beijing has built its own pipeline to bring oil from Kazakhstan and is seeking two gas pipelines from Russia. These pipelines are a lynchpin of China’s strategy to diversify its imports away from over-reliance on the volatile Persian Gulf region, the current source of more than half of Chinese overseas purchases. In contrast, energy-poor India and Japan do not have a similar option. Lacking geographical contiguity with Central Asia and Iran, India will remain largely dependent on oil imports by sea from the Persian Gulf region. 

China, with the world’s most resource-hungry economy, fears that in the event of a strategic confrontation, its economy could be held hostage by hostile naval forces through the interdiction of its oil imports. That same concern has prompted Beijing to build a strategic oil reserve, and China is now seeking to fashion two strategic corridors in southern Asia through which it could transfer Persian Gulf and African oil for its consumption by cutting the transportation distance and minimising its exposure to US-policed sea lanes. 

The new Chinese-built port at Gwadar, Pakistan, represents China’s first strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea. Gwadar, at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, will link up with the Trans-Karakoram corridor to western China. China is also establishing a similar energy corridor through Myanmar. 

The blunt and incontrovertible truth is that energy demands in Asia are beginning to influence strategic thinking and military planning. For some states, a rising dependence on oil imports has served to rationalise both a growing emphasis on maritime power and security as well as a desire to seek greater strategic space. Concerns over sealane safety and rising vulnerability to disruption of energy supplies are prompting some countries to explore avenues for joint cooperation in maritime security. 

Water presents a unique challenge. While countries can scour the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep their economic machines humming, water cannot be secured through international trade deals. Sustainable and integrated management of national water resources is essential to prevent degradation, depletion and pollution of water. To meet the gap between supply and demand, water conservation, water efficiency, rainwater capture, water recycling and drip irrigation would have to be embraced at national, provincial and local levels. 

One can hope that advances in clean-water technologies would materialise before water conflicts flare. Low-cost, energy-efficient technologies for treating and recycling water could emerge from the scientific progress on nanoparticles and nanofibres and membrane bioreactors. 

The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. 

Source: the Foresight Initiative.

(c) The Times of India, 2010.

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