Scarcity as a Source of Violent Conflict

Scarcity should both interest and scare strategists and policy makers. It refers to a mismatch between the demand for and availability of a commodity. It helps drive free markets, and informs value. But strategists and policy makers should contemplate it because scarcity, both real and perceived, drives much of human conflict, and it has reared its head again, this time in Yemen.

At its simplest, the conflict in Yemen is a civil war pitting Sunnis led by Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, against Zaidi Shia rebels known as the ‘Houthis.’ A mix of non-state actors, state actors, and geography have complicated the matter. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is fighting against both the Sunnis and the Houthis, and has been on the receiving end of numerous American drone strikes. A local affiliate of the Islamic State has also emerged, and seeks to overtake AQAP as the premier terrorist organization in Yemen. Yemeni security forces have split between supporting the Houthis and Hadi’s forces.

A coalition composed of Jordanian, Egyptian, Moroccan, and Sudanese military forces led by Saudi Arabia has conducted airstrikes against the Houthis at Hadi’s request, while simultaneously accusing Iran of supporting the Houthis. All of this is taking place in a state with the potential to control the strategically important Bab al-Mandab strait, influencing much of the world’s oil shipments, and therefore the world’s economy.

Yemenis, environmental experts, and foreign reporters have predicted that water shortages in Yemen would cause problems for several years.

While sectarian tensions have contributed to the war in Yemen as much as they have to other recent conflicts in the region, Yemeni sectarian tensions have roots beyond the archetypic Sunni-Shia or tribal divisions. One of these roots is water scarcity. Yemenis, environmental experts, and foreign reporters have predicted that water shortages in Yemen would cause problems for several years. In 2010, Krista Mar of Time wrote that the growing cultivation of water greedy qat instead of less demanding grapes would cause Yemen to fall critically short of water within a few years.

In 2013, Adam Heffez of Foreign Affairs repeated the warning, adding that 70 to 80 percent of the country’s violent conflicts stemmed from water shortages, resulting in roughly 4,000 deaths annually. By June of 2014, the Yemen Timesreported a rapidly sinking water table, dry wells, a capital city where citizens receive water every nine days, and a desperate need for effective resource management. With Yemenis regularly fighting for the most basic resource required to survive, it was only a matter of time before the population fell upon pre-existing loyalties to define competing groups, spawning sectarian war.

While it would be nice for the rest of the world to believe itself immune, scarcity is hardly a uniquely Yemeni problem, and water is not the only resource that is becoming constrained. While decreased rainfall and overuse are causing water shortages in many regions, the same lack of rainfall is combining with increased temperatures to reduce the amount of arable landin regions as geographically diverse as Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and North America.

As long as current trends continue, much of the world will eventually have to compete for basic survival.

Combined with reduced access to fresh water, the decrease in arable land will limit food production, eventually creating food shortages even more severe than those currently existing. Other shortages may develop, such as cheap non-renewable energy resources, but food and water are essential for survival. As long as current trends continue, much of the world will eventually have to compete for basic survival.

Scarcity is combining with other trends to increase the potential for violent conflict across the world. Much of the developing world is going through both rapid population growth and urbanization without the government or infrastructure to make the transition smoothly. Scarcity, rapid population growth, poor governance, and high-density urban areas all increase volatility. If a region is volatile enough, a small spark is all that is required to ignite violent conflicts. The developed world might be able to ignore these conflicts if it chose to turn a blind eye to all of the resulting human suffering. But even if the possible state on state warfare is ignored, regions undergoing wars and suffering breed violent, radical ideologies that affect the rest of the world.

Leninism spread out of Russia during World War I, global jihad came out of the Russo-Afghan conflict, and the Taliban rose out of the chaos of war-torn Afghanistan in the 1990s. Due to the democratization of technology, the adherents of these radical ideologies have ever-increasing access to dangerous technology. Clearly, the genesis of well armed radical groups is not a trend the developed world should casually ignore.

Choosing a method for developed states to confront scarcity-driven problems is not an easy task. Stopping the oncoming water and arable land shortages is a task beyond the scope of this article, and seems to be beyond the ambition of many legislative bodies. Coercive strategies that attempt to directly resolve security issues are unlikely to succeed. While expeditionary forces can address security issues, temporarily pacifying an area will not resolve the lurking scarcity issues, even in the rare occasions when expeditionary forces succeed. It is like treating the symptoms of cancer without addressing the underlying disease, then expecting the patient to recover. Instead, developed states should use a multi-pronged approach that addresses the deeper issues of scarcity by relying heavily on proactive methods.

Developed states must partner with host nation governments to cooperatively identify issues and develop solutions for that particular state and culture.

Proactive techniques can help developing states manage their resources to avoid both intrastate and interstate conflict. Developed states with abundant resources should provide urban planning and resource management expertise that minimizes wastage and helps deliver resources where they need to go, reducing intrastate conflict. Numerous NATO states have a similar program using Special Operations Forces to assist with Foreign Internal Defense, so there is no reason a program cannot be created to combat scarcity. While this may sound generous on the surface, developed states arriving as saviors to provide knowledge from on high smacks of condescending imperialism, and ultimately precedes failure.

The United States and other developed countries already have several agencies whose combined efforts could reduce scarcity driven security problems. Intelligence agencies already identify security issues, and can identify looming scarcity. The United States Agency for International Development invests in food security in many countries. Their Feed the Futureand the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition initiatives both help reduce poverty and improve agricultural practices in the developing world. If some of USAID’s efforts work in conjunction with the State Department to target problems identified by intelligence agencies, they may be able to minimize or even prevent some conflicts.

Developed states must partner with host nation governments to cooperatively identify issues and develop solutions for that particular state and culture. To prevent interstate conflict, liberal international organizations like the UN and ASEAN should aggressively encourage and facilitate resource management between states. Egypt, the Sudan, and Ethiopia managed to agree on how to share the water of the Eastern Nile peacefully, and they have set a precedent for other states to do the same. If these states can do so in a conflict ridden area without assistance from outside organizations, other areas should be able to accomplish just as much with international facilitation.

Resource scarcity has plagued mankind for all of its existence. Too many wars to count have been fought over land, material wealth, trade routes, or other resources. But growing populations, receding fresh water supplies, and dwindling arable land will only increase competition for resources in the years to come.

The result will sometimes be state on state warfare, sometimes civil war, sometimes the generation of violent radical groups, and sometimes merely mass human suffering. States that have the ability need to show the foresight to develop and implement methods to stop conflicts before they start.

Justin Lynch is an officer in the US Army and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the US Army, the Department of Defense or the US Government.

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