academics header

Resource Conflict


Prepared by Professor Michael Klare, Hampshire College, Amherst, Mass. USA

Historically, many wars have been fought over the possession or control of vital resources: water, arable land, gold and silver, diamonds, copper, petroleum, and so on. Conflict over resources figured prominently in the inter-imperial wars of the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and laid the groundwork for World War I. Resource conflict was less prominent during the Cold War period, when ideological disputes prevailed, but has become more prominent in the Post-Cold War era. Indeed, many of the conflicts of the 1990’s—including those in Angola, Chechnya, Chiapas, Congo, Indonesia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan—were driven largely or in part by competition over the control of critical sources of vital materials. As was true in the past, conflict over resources remains a significant feature of the world security environment.

One can of course that the current resurgence of conflict over resources is nothing more than a return to past practice, when such disputes were a common feature of the international landscape. To some degree, this is true. But it is also evident that resource conflict is becoming more frequent and more pronounced in some areas as the demand for certain materials comes to exceed the available supply. For example, an acute shortage of arable land and fresh water seems to have been a significant factor in several conflicts, including those in Chiapas, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. The same conditions appear to be developing in other areas of scarcity.

Competition over the control of valuable oil supplies and pipeline routes has emerged as a particularly acute source of conflict in the 21st century. With the demand for oil growing and many older sources of supply (such as those in the United States, Mexico, and China) in decline, the pressure on remaining supplies--notably those in the Persian Gulf area, the Caspian Sea basin, South America, and Africa--is growing ever more intense. To complicate matters, many of the major producing fields and pipelines are located in or near areas of instability or have come under attack from guerrillas and terrorists. Many analysts also believe that competition for oil was a factor in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. (See Klare, "Global Petro-Politics," "The Deadly Nexus," and "The Geopolitics of War" in Selected Bibliography [to come].)

Several factors underlie the increased frequency and intensity of resource conflict in the 21st Century. These are: (1) economic globalization; (2) unsustainable consumption; (3) population growth; and (4) economic warfare in poor and developing countries.

Economic globalization: The growing internationalization of finance and trade is having an effect on many worldwide phenomena, including the demand for and consumption of basic resources. Globalization increases the demand for resources in several ways, most notably thought the spread and acceleration of industrialization. As nations become industrialize, their need for many resources—especially energy, timber, and minerals—grows substantially. Most manufacturing processes require large supplies of energy plus a wide range of raw materials. With globalization, therefore, we have seen a substantial increase in the consumption of these materials by the newly-industrialized countries (NICs). For example, the consumption of energy by the developing countries is rising by 3.7 percent per year—nearly three times the rate for the older industrialized countries (source: U.S Dept. of Energy, International Energy Outlook 2002). This means that the competition for access to energy supplies (and other vital materials) will grow ever more intense in the years ahead.

Unsustainable consumption: Although the global stocks of most vital materials are sufficient for current requirements, the consumption of many of them is growing at such a rapid pace that serious scarcities could arise in the year ahead. This is especially true for oil and water, two of the world's most vital resources. The earth possesses only a certain amount of conventional (i.e., liquid) petroleum—perhaps 2,500 billion barrels—and, over the past 140 years, approximately one-third of this amount has been consumed. But because the global consumption of oil is rising so quickly, we are likely to consume the next one-third by 2020. At this point, it will prove very difficult to satisfy the global demand for oil unless vast new reserves are found or new more fuel-efficient vehicles enter widespread use. Worldwide water use is also growing at an unsustainable rate as more and more people move to cities and acquire water-intensive devices like dishwashers and indoor showers. As the available supply of these and other vital materials dwindle, the competition for access to remaining resources will surely increase.

Population growth: The world’s human population is expected to grow by about three billion people between now and 2050 (rising from 6.2 billion people in 2002 to about 9.3 billion in 2050). Obviously, all of these additional humans will require food, shelter, clothing, energy, and other necessities. Theoretically, the early as a whole possesses sufficient stocks of the necessary materials to satisfy these needs, but unfortunately many of the countries with the highest levels of population growth are located in areas where the where the availability of some vital resources is in doubt. This is especially true for two critical materials: water and arable land. Severe scarcities of both have already developed in parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America where population rates are especially high. This could lead to intense competition for access to these resources in the years ahead. In particular, it could provoke conflict over the distribution of shared water resources in such areas as the Nile and Jordan river basins, where water is already scarce and the combined population is expected to triple over the next 50 years.

Economic warfare: Conflict over resources often occurs in poor and divided countries that possess only one or two major sources of wealth, such as diamonds, copper, or old-growth timber. In these countries, whoever exercises control over these resources has a chance of accumulating significant wealth, while everyone else is usually destined to live in poverty. In well-regulated states, these resources are controlled by the government and the proceeds from their exploitation are divided reasonably fairly among the population at large; in dysfunctional or failed states, however, various factions or warlords are likely to fight over these critical sources of wealth. These factions may exploit ethnic or religious animosities in order to recruit supporters for the endeavors, but it is the pursuit of resource wealth and not the legacy of ethnic hatred that drives these conflicts. This was true, for example, of the conflicts in Angola and Sierra Leone, which were largely driven by a struggle over lucrative diamond fields.

It is the combination of all these factors, more than anything else, that is contributing to the growing intensity of global resource competition. But such competition need not have result in violent conflict. Many disputes over critical sources of key materials can be resolved through compromise, adjudication, technological innovation, conservation, and conventional market mechanisms.

Technological innovation could result, for example, in the development of more efficient means of water desalination, allowing the low-cost conversion of sea water into fresh water. Likewise, the widespread use of hybrid (gas/electric) vehicles and hydrogen-powered fuel cells could reduce the global requirement of petroleum. Market mechanisms, such as an increase in the price of oil, would spur conservation and the development of new sources of energy. And international adjudication can assist in the resolution of disputes over offshore boundaries and the allocation of shared water supplies.

But these approaches will only work if the states involved are committed to the non-violent resolution of resource disputes and to the equitable allocation of the world's precious resources. Unfortunately, states are sometimes inclined to view resource competition as a zero-sum game and to securitize vital sources--that is, view them as "national security" interests that must be protected at all costs, including human blood.


For more information on this topic, see: Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict, by Michael T. Klare. (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2001).


© 2014 Hampshire College 893 West Street Amherst, MA 01002 . 413.549.4600