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World: Experts Discuss Looming 'Resource Wars'

  • Nikola Krastev

One of the consequences of globalization is the increased demand for resources, especially energy. The U.S. government's new energy policy proposal is only one of the attempts to address an anticipated energy crisis, though the problem is global in dimension. A panel of energy experts in New York City discussed recently how international developments have affected countries' needs for more energy and water supplies.

New York, 28 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. expert on energy and politics says in a new book that the growing demand for energy supplies is a source of looming confrontation among the world's powers.

Michael Klare, a U.S. expert on world policy issues, makes his case in a study entitled "Resource Wars: A New Geography of Conflict." In it, he points to the oil-rich Caspian Sea region as a typical region of growing confrontation, in this case between Russia and the United States.

In an interview with our correspondent, Klare says the United States and Russia are now establishing greater military contacts with countries in the region, which he argues can be a source of future instability.

"If things proceed the way they have been -- which is, the both sides view this as zero-sum game of competition -- I think, it's likely to be more disorder and instability in the region and periodic crises. Because both sides currently -- that is, the American-supported side and the Russian supported-side -- are building military alliances with local countries. They're providing military aid, arms transfers, other forms of military involvement. And I think they're both proceeding from a competitive confrontational stand. And I think if that proceeds that way, we will see more conflict in the area."

Klare participated in a panel discussion on energy policy issues organized last week by the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think-tank. Other participants in the panel emphasized the close relationship between global energy resources and water supplies, and how water can become a major factor for regional instability in various parts of the world. Sandra Postel is director of the non-governmental Global Water Policy Project. She said:

"We are about to enter what, I would say, is a really unprecedented period of water-stress -- globally -- that we are not yet [prepared] to adequately deal with."

Among factors helping to create increased energy and water demands, the panel participants cited the so-called "consumption revolution," urbanization, and global climate changes. The consumption revolution is a process during which those people in developing countries who acquire more wealth try to duplicate the lifestyle in the developed world. The trends in urbanization clearly show that in the next 25 years two-thirds of the world population will inhabit large urban areas. Reported global climate changes, Postel says, are leading to disproportionate distribution of rainfall and to the expansion of arid lands.

"Countries in this category of water stress simply cannot mobilize enough fresh water to meet all of the food needs, and all of the industrial needs, and all of the household needs of their citizens. What they typically have to do at some point is [to] import water indirectly in the form of grain. Grain is the currency by which water is traded in large quantities around the world. It's not by tanker, it's not by pipeline, it's through the international grain market."

For example, Postel says Egypt, a country with a large mass of fertile land, needs to import 60 percent of its grain because a lack of water prevents it from providing enough food domestically.

A map of contested water-resource zones shows that most major water systems in arid or semi-arid areas are shared by two or more countries and are a potential source of conflicts. These include large river systems such as the Tigris and Euphrates, shared by Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and the Amu Darya, shared by Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Panel participants said that, while water will continue to be a major factor in international relations -- particularly in the developing world -- oil will continue to dictate strategic policy decisions in the foreseeable future. Klare tells RFE/RL that vast energy reserves in Central Asia and the Caucasus have made the region a priority for the United States despite the area's generally poor progress in post-communist reforms.

"I think in this case this is a national security consideration that's driving all of this. The United States has to get that oil from that region [Central Asia] and will make a deal with whatever governments are there in place that are willing to work with us [that is, the U.S.], like the government[s] in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan that are far from ideal with respect to human rights and democratic procedure. And I think that's a reflection of the view that I write about in my book -- we [the U.S.] view oil as a security consideration and we have to protect it by any means necessary, regardless of other considerations, other values."

But U.S. officials also have sought to play a mediating role to help protect oil supplies. The new administration of President George W. Bush this year has been active in trying to assist in peace talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

U.S. oil companies are currently developing some of Azerbaijan's most promising offshore oilfields in the Caspian Sea, and Washington is eager to secure safe transportation of Azerbaijani crude to world markets through Georgia and Turkey.

Some analysts, however, downplay the significance of the Caspian-basin oil reserves for the United States because of their remoteness and internal instability in the region. Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy consultant and a participant in the panel, says that no Caspian oil will feed U.S. markets. Rather, she says, it will flow to Europe and possibly to Asia.