In medieval times, sieges were used to prevent an enemy from accessing fresh water, food and other supplies. Using the natural environment against foes has been a common wartime technique throughout history. In 1991, Peter Gleick examined just how these things tend to play out in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in “Environment and Security: The Clear Connections.” Gleick, cofounder of the Pacific Institute and eminent scholar on the intersection between natural resources and security issues, particularly water security, broke natural resource-security interactions into four categories: resources as strategic goals; attacks on resources; resources as military tools; and disruption to environmental services.
Resources as Strategic Goals: Fighting over valuable supplies of natural resources is certainly nothing new. Minerals, farmland and clean water have been motivators for wars throughout human history, but recently there has been an increase in conflicts where natural resources are a major motivator. The roles of resources in wars in Africa have made headlines as combatants battle over diamonds, gold and other natural resources.
Gleick did not, in this article, look at the cause of the drive to control resources in conflicts. Scholars have offered various explanations for why resources are strategic goals since Gleick published in 1991. Some follow his line of reasoning that the motivator is economic. Others look at dependence issues; this underlines the fact that even in the presence of sufficient supplies, combatants may still fight to secure an especially sensitive supply. Others point to minerals as a means to finance a war based on another issue entirely.
Attacks on Resources: Gleick next examined the role of destroying enemy resources in wars, which destroys the combatants’ ability to resist pressure by reducing resource supplies for their group as well as any money they might receive for them on the open market. Historically, enemy resources have been considered legitimate targets. Poisoning water supplies was practiced by the Greeks. Recently, attacking power installations and other energy supplies are more common. As Gleick explains, the rise of nuclear energy makes this even more attractive, because “power plants and energy distribution facilities have always been considered legitimate targets for attack in the event of war.” However, ecological warfare can have repercussions that echo through the decades.
Attacks on resources are not only useful when targeting an enemy, but can be useful when fighting against a stronger combatant in occupied territory. Sherman’s March to the Sea followed a scorched earth policy, as did the Russians when the Germans invaded their homeland. More recently, in Afghanistan insurgents have worked to prevent the reconstruction of the Kajaki Dam. Preventing the general populace from widespread access to water and energy supplies is vital so that the coalition cannot offer a better alternative to the Taliban-run state. Access to natural resources has become a tool to control public opinion. When a force can provide water, energy and food to a population local support is more likely.
Resources as Military Tools: Gleick also suggested that natural resources could be used as negotiating tools, and that “direct manipulation” of the environment could be used as a threat. He cited as an example Turkey controlling the Euphrates to prevent Syrian support for eastern Turkish separatists. Although the position was later reversed, the policy of using water supplies for political gains was not. Recently, Iraq and Turkey reached an agreement by which Iraq focuses on controlling Kurdish rebels for assurances of the flow of water. Last year Russia shut off gas shipments to Ukraine. Likewise, China has begun to play with the idea of stopping exports of rare earth metals.
Although these policies are often successful in forcing political negotiations, they can show deep-rooted dependence issues which may feed back into Gleick’s original security threat of resources as an end goal. He notes this connection, quoting Egypt’s ex-President Anwar Sadat in 1978: “We depended upon the Nile 100 percent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks to deprive us of our life we shall never hesitate [to go to war] because it is a matter of life or death.”
Disruption to Environmental Services: This is a catch-all category that looks at the effects of global warming on international relations. He projected that as the effects of climate change become more pervasive, relationships between developed and developing countries will become strained. We have seen African countries seeking money for the effects of climate change, and further effects are sure to become clearer over time.
Although all of Gleick’s groupings are interrelated and several important causes of environmental insecurity are left out, his method of looking at national security issues for their natural resource content was revolutionary. Looking at how conflicts have a natural resource component – and systematically describing the ways in which they play out – has allowed a better understanding of resources in security.