4 Ways Dwindling Natural Resources Could Lead to Conflict

Harrison Ford, Peter Seligmann, Richard Haass

CI Vice Chair Harrison Ford, CI CEO Peter Seligmann and CFR President Richard Haass discuss the direct connections between nature and national security at the Council on Foreign Relations. (© CI/photo by Andrew Kolb)

Less than a decade ago off the Somali coast, pirates captured the world’s attention. Anyone traveling by boat near the Horn of Africa went in fear of pirates hijacking their vessel for its cargo and taking hostages in hopes of procuring ransom money.

However, despite extensive news coverage, many stories failed to emphasize one of the root causes of this surge of pirate attacks: overfishing of some of the Indian Ocean’s most productive waters.

After the Somali government collapsed in 1991, foreign fishing vessels began inching closer to the coast, taking a toll on the rich fishery upon which many coastal residents relied. “The local fishermen had no way to feed themselves,” said CI Chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann. “But they had boats, and they became pirates.”

This situation illustrates how the collapse of natural resources often drives people to take desperate measures — and can have unexpected consequences. For example, the rise in piracy led to major military expenditures by the U.S. and other countries to deal with the security threat.

The often-overlooked direct connection between ecosystem health and conflict was the subject of last week’s symposium, “Global Resources, the U.S. Economy, and National Security,” held at the Washington, D.C. office of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Jointly organized by CI and CFR, the event staged conversations between a variety of panelists and brought together a diverse audience that included defense experts, business executives, government representatives and scientists to discuss the intersection between natural capital — the benefits and services provided to people by biodiversity and ecosystems — and the economic and national security interests of the U.S. and other countries around the world.

The Council on Foreign Relations is a leading think tank best known for its expertise in foreign policy and conflict prevention. The organization’s growing interest in the security implications of international conservation demonstrates that the issue is gaining wider attention outside traditional environmental circles.

Throughout the day, speakers touched on topics as diverse as fracking, smallholder farming, the rise of China’s influence in Africa, water scarcity and food prices. For me, the following four statistics cited by panelists stood out as warning signs of the ways in which our dependence on shared resources could escalate conflict:

  1. More than 260 river basins are shared by two or more countries.
  2. One in four people get their main source of animal protein from fish. (Note: upon further research, it appears this number is closer to one in seven.)
  3. If all agriculture production ceased tomorrow, the world would only have about a two-month supply of food — the lowest in recent history.
  4. By 2030, 2.5 billion people will be water-scarce.

It’s clear that the only way to successfully protect these critical resources is through cooperation and collaboration. During a panel entitled “Scarcity and Security in Africa,” Dr. Gary Weir, chief historian at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, highlighted the need for regional agreements to promote sustainable fisheries management in waters off the Horn of Africa in order to enable long-term solutions to the Somali piracy problem.

During the day’s final session — a discussion among CFR President Richard Haass, CI Chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann and CI Vice Chair Harrison Ford — Haass summarized why everyone has a stake in international conservation and sustainable management of the world’s natural resources.

“There are things which, like it or not, come here,” he said. “We’re not a giant gated community. Sheer self-interest gets you to the point where you’ve got to care about these things.”

Molly Bergen is the managing editor of Human Nature.