October 6, 2009 — How would development programmes look if viewed from the position of scarcity, especially the scarcity of food, water, and energy?
And with a growing deficit between the demand for these resources and their supply, do policymakers have the tools needed to foster resilience in resource-strapped developing countries? These were among questions posed by participants at a recent Washington-based forum on Global Resource Security.
Hosted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and attracting some 75 individuals from U.S. agencies, national laboratories, foundations, the private sector, and public interest groups, the forum looked at the "bigger picture" of resource scarcity and its implications for both developed and developing countries.
Although participants came together from the food, water, and energy sectors, Howard Passell, a senior member of the technical staff from Sandia National Laboratories, noted that the focus should not be about any one of these sectors individually, but about the broader "ecological crisis on this planet, whose signs are water, energy and food scarcities, climate problems, disease epidemics, and other problems".
He cautioned that "dealing with all these crises as if they were independent of each other is a mistake that leads to wasted money and efforts, ineffectiveness, and unintended consequences."
In contrast, Passell recommended approaches that were "integrated, multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral". And the challenges are global ones.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), almost four billion people will live in areas of high water stress by 2030 if governments and individuals do not use this finite resource more responsibly.
With agriculture accounting for 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals, there are also clear linkages between water scarcity and food production. The same WEF report projects that food demand will grow 70 to 90 percent by 2050.
Finally, the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2008 notes that world energy demand is expected to grow 45 percent by 2030. India and China alone will be responsible for over half of the increase in energy demand by 2050.
It is unclear how these needs will be met by expanding populations who are intent on reaching Western living standards.
In developing countries, conflicts over resources remain likely both within states and between them. Transboundary waters - like the Ganges flowing through India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and China - are just one example.
"As these countries continue to grow, and development aspirations and diets change," states an August 2009 report on the Ganges River Basin from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, "the demand for water from the Ganges as well as other international and national river systems in the region is likely to increase."
As it stands, and as verified by satellite imagery, parts of the Ganges have been experiencing significant water stress and there are multiple threats to the quality of surface and groundwater resources. These changes in water quality and quantity "have the potential to exacerbate existing tensions between groups trying to protect their interests at multiple scales," states the report.
Although there is a history of bilateral agreements related to the world's 260 international rivers, there are fewer regional forums for cooperation.
The CSIS event also addressed the links between resources and security in the developed world.
"The potential for abrupt and catastrophic change affects every nation's security," warned Carol Dumaine, the deputy director of energy and environmental security at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Citing the example of the recent global financial crisis, she added that it was critical for anyone looking at these resource issues to understand the systemic risk and the critical thresholds for that risk.
Sharon Burke, vice president for natural security at the Centre for a New American Security, called for more attention to these linkages domestically.
"The U.S. sends many of its minerals overseas to be refined," she said, but "very few people are looking at this issue in a strategic sense, or at what it means for the dependencies created in the U.S. economy and the defence industry."
Burke added that it was critical to bring scientists and policymakers together to address these security concerns more thoroughly.
There is, seemingly, a greater appreciation, however, for working across traditional boundaries. The U.S. military establishment, for example, has expanded its own definitions of security beyond its traditional war-fighting capabilities, such as paying more attention to the resilience of communities in the face of climate change.
Among others, the Department of Defence's upcoming 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review is said to cover topics like the impacts of migration and crime on security.
Last week's forum underlined a collective sense of urgency among practitioners, but getting research disseminated to those in the policy community was said to be considerably more difficult.
Part of the problem is the complexity inherent in the computer modeling of resource scarcity, especially the difficulties of compiling and analysing data across multiple sectors. Passell noted that "We have the capabilities now to address that kind of complexity, with systems modeling, that we didn't have 10 or 15 years ago."
Still, it remains unclear how to use this modeling to evaluate tradeoffs, consequences, and future strategies - much less how to convey it to the general public. Collaboration that leads to good data to actionable outcomes was recognised as a tougher assignment overall.
The challenges for institutions, concluded Alexander Evans with New York University's Centre on International Cooperation, are "managing complexity, taking a long-term view, and building trust" and, ultimately, making a choice between "cooperation and conflict".
Concrete suggestions from the forum included the development of a Resource Vulnerability Index, or the formation of a body like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with the task of compiling a World Resources Outlook.
"Our goal in organising the workshop was to test the assumption that we will see a revival of the kind of resource dislocation that occurred 18 months ago - with reverberations across the world," said Erik Peterson, a senior vice president at CSIS and director of the Global Strategy Institute
"If we can accept the notion that resource scarcity issues will resurface, with an obvious impact on stability and security, economic development, and political and social cohesion, then it is incumbent on us to understand the complex and changing linkages that exist between food, water and energy before they become even more unmanageable," he said.