Resource Depletion And Environmental Degradation Drives Humanitarian Crises

On the International Day for Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon highlighted that “since 1990, at least 18 violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources such as timber, minerals, oil, and gas.” Just two years ago, Russia, the United States, and other countries were bidding for control over the northernmost territory. The Arctic is rich in oil and natural gas, and with the world’s supply of oil and natural gases fast depleting, every country wanted it for themselves. In 2015, Russia claimed a large part of the Arctic to develop natural resources, including oil while President Barack Obama approved a proposal to drill in an area under U.S. control. In 2011, Sudan and South Sudan fought over the oil centre of Heglig, a town seceded to Sudan after the peace settlement of 2011. The northerners, adamant in gaining control, mobilized their own forces and drove the South Sudanese out of Heglig. This triggered violence and airstrikes along the borders. In the South China Sea dispute, both sides again resort to violent means by deploying warships in the contested area. With each side hell-bent on gaining control over the scarce waters, little inclination to surrender their claims to the island are seen. It is clear that the continuous depletion of natural resources had stirred and continue to stir conflicts between nations.

Just how bad is the scarcity of natural resources? Global demand for resources has increased substantially since the start of the 20th Century. This demand is driven by increased economic activity, mass urbanization of agrarian societies and the spread of technology that more often than not requires copious amounts of electricity-generating natural gases and biomasses. This demand will continue to grow in the subsequent decades as the global population is projected to be 9.6 billion by 2050 while world economic output is projected to triple by 2050. The ever-growing demand coupled with the limited supply of resources creates a snowballing shortage of resources that drives competition between nations for these scarce resources.

Civil conflicts stemming from the global competition over scarce resources are to an extent inevitable. It is in human nature to always seek ways to provide for oneself rather than the altruistic outcomes that many optimists hope for. The ongoing and long drawn South China Sea dispute highlights the difficulties of mediation. With China adamant on claiming rights to the largest portions of the sea, including waters approaching Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Indonesia, and Southeast Asian countries unwilling to back down, the war on resources continues to escalate tensions. Yet, instead of committing money and troops into wars over scarce resources, the same money can be put into developing sustainable alternatives for scarce natural resources.

In addressing one of the most sought-after scarce resources, alternative energy sources have long been developed, but are not always affordable. Solar panels, for instance, have high maintenance costs many just cannot afford. The government should focus their efforts on making these alternatives more accessible rather than incurring both human and capital losses by engaging in conflicts.

Aside from driving humanitarian crisis in terms of civil conflict and widespread violence, environmental degradation has led to catastrophic effects on human populations.  For instance, according to a study undertaken by the UNEP/OCHA Environment unit, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan has had direct and extreme impacts on human lives and livelihoods. Women in Sudan had to travel further for firewood as a result of deforestation and subsequent desertification. Education was also impacted as women removed their daughters from school to help with the increased burden of gathering wood and water. The loss of fertile topsoil from deforestation had a negative impact on agricultural activities, adversely affecting the livelihoods of farmers. There was also the loss of groundwater retention and groundwater aquifers, exacerbating the already serious water scarcity problem. Furthermore, large arid areas without vegetation can invoke negative health impacts, in particular, respiratory diseases. With just one of many environmental problems causing a multitude of effects, it is the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis caused by environmental problems that is alarming.

One environmental problem that had spillover effects was Indonesia’s forest fires, which were man-made to aid forest clearance. This is called the “slash and burn” method, where land is set on fire as a cheaper way to clear it for new planting. These forest fires caused people in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia to choke under the thick haze of smog. A state of emergency was declared in the Riau Province of Indonesia, making the disastrous effects of the forest fires evident.

In dealing with the humanitarian crisis like the aforementioned examples, in particular, those that affect the international community at large, international pressure should be placed on governments to resolve the situations. Moreover, humanitarian aid should be given to those experiencing the worst effects of environmental degradation.

To address the humanitarian crisis, be it in the form of open conflict or the adverse effects of environmental degradation, governments and people on a whole need to first recognize the magnitude of impact environmental degradation and resource depletion have. The days of deeming the environmental crisis in the ‘distant future’ are long gone. With the effects of global warming and harmful human practices spreading, the international community will need to commit more effort to address them and the humanitarian crises that follow.

Lew Ching Yip