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Vibin Lakshmanan asked: What could be the new dimensions of human conflict in view of growing resource scarcity?

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  • P.K. Gautam replies: There is a vast body of literature available on this issue, of which water wars hypothesis and grab for Arctic resources are relatively recent examples. The available literature is along three lines:

    1) Neo-Malthusian Model. In this “first wave” body of literature, the sources of environmental scarcities and resultant violent conflict are identified as: (a) Resource depletion and degradation (b) population growth, and c) structural scarcity or uneven distribution. The pattern of interaction due to scarcities manifest in basically two forms: the first is termed ‘resource capture,’ and the second is termed ‘ecological marginalisation.’ The link between scarcity and conflict is at three levels: first is “simple scarcity” conflict, second on group identity, and the third is “relative deprivation.” The conflict may lead to the following:

    (i) Technical and social ingenuity to adapt
    (ii) Decouple by trading goods and services for environmental resources
    (iii) Country may fragment due to warlordism
    (iv) State turns into a hard authoritarian regime

    2) Resource Nationalism. This is about non renewable resources like oil and diamonds. Critical resource scarcity will increasingly motivate military intervention as markets and technology fails to address perceived threats of supply.  The three interrelated factors that introduce stress in the international system are:

    (i) Insatiable demand due to growth of population;     
    (ii) The looming risk of shortages of fossil fuel and also water; and         
    (iii) Contested source of supply, for example oil and gas. 

    3) Political Economy. Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler and others of the World Bank have done work on the link of resources with conflict. The “resource curse” thesis showed that some resource dependent countries were more prone to civil wars.

    However, cooperation is often the outcome as wars may not solve the problem. Thus, the Indus Water Treaty is a good example. Sustainable development, controlled demand, reduced consumption, recycle & reuse, and reasonable ‘expectations’ of the growing population and economies with technologies could help minimise the problem.