Resource wars in the twenty-first century


The quest for natural resources has always been one of the main factors leading to war. Many refer to colonialism as perhaps the most interesting example, wherein the Imperial nations colonized regions that had a rich natural resource base. They entered these countries for the primary motive of trade, taking with them commodities and resources that were rare and precious. The mercantilists waged wars against native rulers, and gained control of territories. They saw in colonies vast expanses of rich and unconquered lands. Imperialism was thus established gradually, with France, Portugal and Britain controlling many colonies in South Asia and Africa.

The imperial nations had their own vested interests. They aim was exploitation and profit. Cash crops were encouraged as they were more useful than food crops. Forest resources in India were controlled by exploitative policies. Their focus was predominantly on the extraction of forest resources for commercial use that resulted in a negative impact on the environment and tribal populace (Saravanan, 1998).Since the mid-1990s, researchers have been delving into causes of both civil and inter-state wars. Findings have revealed that natural resources have played a key role in all stages of conflicts. These resources are predominantly oil, increasingly water and hard-rock minerals like gold, diamonds, and other gemstones. Today, the extraction of valuable resources continues to give rise to violence and war across the world from internal civil strife to international interventions such as in Afghanistan and Iraq (Klare, 2001). Societies that are faced with shortage of resources reflect poor resource management and often break into violence. There exists a distributional struggle among various groups.  (Ross, 2002) talks about how resource dependence can promote civil war in four ways: by harming a country’s economic performance; by making its government weaker, more corrupt, and less accountable; by giving people who live in resource-rich regions an incentive to form an independent state; and by helping finance rebel movements.

While resources have on the one hand been linked to securitization of development, and on the other linked to politicization of abundance and security. These resources primarily include oil, coal, diamonds and other precious stones and now increasingly water and arable land. Most scholars, when referring to natural resources mean those that are exhaustible. Resource wars today are a result of many factors: rapidly growing populations; dwindling global oil resources; an uneven distribution of the above mentioned resources between the Global North and the Global South; climate change; massive environmental depletion and poor governance.

Researchers largely believe in two reasons as to why resource wars are fought (Klare, 2002): Firstly, there is a demand by rapidly growing populations for scarce resources and secondly, an abundance of resources leading to wars of greed. Therefore, resource was can be classified into two: a) abundant resource wars and b) scarce resource wars. Scarce resource wars are fought in the backdrop of an ever-increasing population, where few resources are available to fulfil the needs and demands of the entire population. The need for survival is priority for all. The societies then become dependent for resources on other societies or associations, leading to conflict in resource-poor societies. Abundant resource wars occur when wealth is under state or territorial control and competing groups resort to non-cooperation or violence to control revenues. Scholars have put forward the argument that there is a causal relation between natural resource abundance and civil conflicts, based on the theory that rebel groups finance their unlawful activities by revenues from natural resources as an easy source of funds that sustain conflicts. Here again, a more sophisticated approach argues that a wealth of resources can result in less democracy, poor economic growth, and greedy behaviour by competing elites. All these factors are generally associated with a greater likelihood of conflict. The wealth of natural resources deeply influences the political economy of a country and its type of governance.

Climate change and armed conflict are intricately connected. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has declared a number of regions that can be affected by climate change. These include the Arctic region, many parts of Africa, small islands and island-nations, and densely populated basins or ‘megadeltas’ like the Nile and Ganga-Brahmaputra. In 2007, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon asserted that changes in the environment were likely to become a major driver of conflict.

Population too has a connection with conflict. Thomas Malthus wrote an essay, ‘An essay on the Principle of Population’ in 1798, in which he described an impending population disaster. The population was then a mere 6 million. The 20th century has seen massive population rise which has in turn had a huge impact on the world resource base. According to The Malthusian catastrophe, there would be widespread poverty, war and famine. There is enough evidence to support Malthus. The population is 6.9 billion, and is expected to reach to 9.1 billion in 2050. Much of this population growth is expected to take place in the Global South in low income countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya and Ethiopia, etc which are also fragile and politically unstable. Hence, a population explosion is clearly evident with low supply of food and inaccessibility of majority of people to basic needs. But another scholar, Ester Boserup wrote the ‘The Conditions of Agricultural Growth’ in 1965. He said the opposite to what Malthus proposed i.e people have sufficient knowledge and resources so as to use them to increase food supply. Population growth should trigger an increased food supply. The Green Revolution and other scientific practices undertaken around the world to up the production of food has been evidence that supports Boserup.

There also exists a relationship between the nature of resources, its geographical location, concentration, and the mode by which it is produced and conflicts, as shown in the Table below (Billon, 2001)



Oil remains an indispensable material in our everyday modern lives. As the world food production depends almost entirely on oil, the crisis in Darfur highlights wars fought over the most important resource – oil. The oil was discovered in 1978, and ever since, civil war broke out. China, Poland, Russia and Iran – all encouraged the conflict so as to lay claim on oil in Darfur.

New oil production has fallen as a result of the financial crisis. In 2009, OPEC countries decided to reduce the production of oil by two million barrels a day…the global economic slowdown was forcing lower energy consumption. Hence, there is a risk of lack of supply as the global economy recovers gradually. However, there will be a clash of interests as emerging economies of India, China and Brazil will need more oil in order to meet their domestic needs. But (Fettweis, 2009)argues that resource wars are obsolete. He writes that there are three good reasons to believe that war to control the territory that contains fossil fuel will continue to be a very rare phenomenon as the new century unfolds: Firstly, firstly fighting to control oil is likely to be a self defeating proposition. It will always be cheaper to buy oil than to seize it. Secondly, the interests of consumers and producers do not conflict – all parties involved in oil production have serious interests in stability, without which no one can benefit. Finally, and perhaps counter-intuitively, all kinds of warfare are becoming more and more rare.

Vested interests of private corporations in oil-rich countries are worth highlighting. Their massive investment in oil extraction in host countries (that has a large contribution to the host country’s GDP) can often influence, negatively mostly, the socio-economic conditions in the host country – They have been accused of being neutral when it comes to dealing with unpopular regimes, thereby showing that regime-types do not affect them – their only motive being oil. Violence comes in various forms: when locals protest against a company’s operations that are unfavourable to the protesters; providing host countries with arms and ammunitions. Shell is an apt example here, wherein it admitted that it had in the past imported side arms into Nigeria for the police. Anthropologists comment on the complexity of corporations and their relationships on-site. According to (Ballard and Banks, 2003) ‘Relationships between different actors within the broader mining community have often been characterized by conflict, ranging from ideological opposition and dispute to armed conflict and the extensive loss of lives, livelihoods, and environments’. They have observed that conflicts like the Bougainville rebellion fit the description of a resource war triggered by a multinational mining company.

Today, the big question remains whether oil scarcity will encourage countries to deter war so as to start exploitation or will it only make it worse. Oil should perhaps only lubricate peace talks – not instigate conflict.

Water resources too have large role in conflict. Access to water is a pre-requisite – from survival to developmental needs. But it has also been a source of conflict between many states. India and Bangladesh have had issues over the water from the Brahmaputra; India-Pakistan have had a history of water disputes over the Indus; Arabs and Israelis too have dealt with water issues; Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have fought over sharing of the water from the Nile River. The issues associated with water as a source of conflict are manifold. Water bodies often ignore the territorial boundaries of a particular nation-state; it is also the only scarce resource for which a substitute has not been developed yet; and the International law over water rights and sharing is weak – resulting in water wars. According to noted environmentalist, Vandana Shiva, there are nine principles underpinning water democracy – a) Water is a gift from Nature b) water is essential for the survival of all life forms c) Life is interconnected through water d) Water ought to be free for sustenance e) Water must be conserved f) Water is among the commons – a ‘Global Common[1]’ g) No one holds a right to destroy h) There is no substitute for water.  (Shiva, 2002)

There are many countries which are resource dependent on other countries. Most countries meet their demands through imports of resources. This dependence often leads to poor economic performance by reducing growth rates and increasing the incidence of poverty thereby, leading to conflict-cycles. According to the World Bank, out of the world’s twenty most oil-dependent states and twenty most mineral-dependent states, at least the first eleven on each list rank among the world’s highly indebted nations. Civil wars in these countries are frequent, and in many cases have been going on for years.

The way forward…

As Michael Klare puts it, conflict over resources will become an increasingly more distinct feature of conflict in the international system (Klare, 2002). This can be supported by factors like the inability of market forces to alleviate demand and supply problems, in which case the nation-states find alternative means to pursue their national security goals. Also, resources can become powerful instruments of war for states that possess them. Additionally, when a resource rich region becomes hot-spots of conflicts, intervention by the powerful states is common. But the international community will not have a consensus when it comes whether the intervention is justified or not. Resources are often tempting forces and can divide the international community.

Governments can best prevent resource conflicts from breaking out, as they know their geo-political dynamics well. In most cases resource dependence tends to influence the governments themselves, thus making them less able to resolve the conflicts. The government in such a case fosters corruption, lacks accountability and has a weak state. But a strong, able and determined government should be able to deal with socio-economic problems caused by dependency on resources.

Finally, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt argues that we need to rethink the issues around resource ownership rights as well as the legal frameworks governing and controlling ownership of the mineral-rich tracts of developing countries (Dutt, 2006).While it is difficult to establish such rights, yet their absence may lead to excessively rapid depletion.  (Dasgupta & Heal, 1980)

Natural resources are the strengths of a nation. They must be used as catalysts for growth and development and not as tools of war and terror. The realization that resources can be used but not owned needs to set in no sooner than now.

Billon, P. L. (2001). The Political Ecology of War: Natural Resources and Armed Conflicts. Political Geography , 561-584.

Dasgupta, P., & Heal, G. M. (1980). Economic Theory and Exhaustible Resources. UK : Cambridge University Press.

Dutt, K. L. (2006). May God Give Us Chaos, So That We Can Plunder’: A critique of ‘resource curse’ and conflict theories. Development , 14-21.

Fettweis, J. C. (2009). No Blood for Oil: Why Resource wars are obsolete . In G. Luft, G. Luft, & A. Korin (Eds.), Energy security challenges for the twenty-first century. ABC-CLIO.

Klare, M. T. (2002). Resource wars: the new landscape of global conflict. Henry Holt, 2002.

Ross, M. (2002, December 13th). Natural Resources and Civil War: An overview with some policy options. California, USA.


Shiva, V. (2002). Water Wars. South End Press.

[1]Global Commons – According to OECD they are Natural assets outside national jurisdiction. Comprise of Oceans, Atmosphere, Outer Space, Antarctica and natural resources. Their composition and definition remains debated.

The Kashmir Walla needs you, urgently. Only you can do it.

We have always come to you for help: The Kashmir Walla is battling at multiple fronts — and if you don’t act now, it would be too late. 2020 was a year like no other and we walked into it already battered. The freedom of the press in Kashmir was touching new lows as the entire population was gradually coming out of one of the longest communication blackouts in the world.

We are not a big organization. A few thousand rupees from each one of you would make a huge difference.

The Kashmir Walla plans to extensively and honestly cover — break, report, and analyze — everything that matters to you. You can help us.

Choose a plan as per your location