Private armies and warlords support themselves with these crops -- an instance of exploiting (in fact, abusing) the environment to pay for war (Global Resources, 2004).
Use of Resources to Finance Conflict
Forest products are also often used to pay for conflicts. Timber requires little investment and can be converted to cash more cheaply than oil, which requires technology. Control over timber resources can shift the balance of power during a conflict and affect how long the conflict lasts. Underfunded armies, military, police, and rebel forces often finance themselves by cutting trees. Conflicts in Cambodia, Burma and Liberia have been funded with timber, and in each of those countries the wood produced more than 100 million dollars per year (Global Resources, 2004).
Incompatible Uses Leading to Conflict
Use or misuse of resources can be very profitable on one hand but ruinous to another. For example, jurisdictional conflicts have heated up in Montana and Wyoming where coal bed methane has become a valuable resource. Coal bed methane is a by-product of mining coal. It was once dismissed as a by-product of little value. However, developers now have started to harness this resource. Coal bed methane operators drill surface wells into coal seams. The coal seams contain large volumes of water, which the operators pump out. By pumping out the water, pressure is reduced inside the seam and any methane that is present is released. It rises to the surface where it is captured into pipes as it flows upward.
During this production process, operators pump large volumes of water from the coal seams, which become wastewater. When they dispose of the wastewater, it affects both ground and surface water resources adversely. The sodium content in it can be as much as 1500% higher than the sodium content in the Tongue River and 40 to 60 times more than the Powder River's natural state. Such high levels can cause soil particles to unbind and disperse, "destroying soil structure and reducing or eliminating the ability of the soil to filter out saline from the water" (cited in Waeckerlin, 2005).
Because coal bed methane is always found below the surface (several hundred feet deep), development always involves pumping and discharging wastewater into surface environments. Some data suggests significant threats to the region's long-term water supply. Farmers and ranchers are being ruined because they depend almost completely on groundwater that is now deadly to their animals. Complicating the situation is the fact that Congress extended a tax credit for non-conventional fuels, creating an incentive for coal bed methane development. Wyoming, meanwhile, has an $850 million tax surplus from its production, and coal bed methane is expected to bring 7,000 new jobs to Wyoming. Energy companies are expected to invest a billion dollars in development. It is unclear at this point how the conflict will be resolved.
These are only a few examples of "stress sports" where conflicts over resources have or may lead to violence and war. An international task force of leading experts that convened to assess links between environment and security, states:
resource degradation and disaster largely affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor around the world, especially those in indigenous and traditional communities. Loss of livelihoods, in turn, leads to social tension, migration and settlement in inappropriate areas, and often to conflict. It follows then that targeted investments in environmental conservation and the promotion of sustainable and equitable use of natural resources may be significant factors in mitigating disaster risk, reducing social tensions, and avoiding costly conflicts (Conserving the Peace, 2000).
An article in USA Today (2003) warns that over-consumption of the earth's natural resources is depleting the water supply, which will lead to food shortages as well. Because of global warming, today's farmers are facing major new challenges. Their crops must survive the highest temperatures in 11,000 years. In addition widespread aquifer depletion with a resulting loss of irrigation water will result in reduced grain yields. Grain harvests in tropical areas could be reduced by five percent by 2020 and 11% by 2050.
Yields could drop as much as 46% by 2050. Falling water tables are the result of 50 years of overusing diesel and electric pumps, straining water reserves, and setting the stage for "dramatic cutbacks in water resources" (p. 15). Overpumping creates the illusion that there is plenty of food and enables farmers to feed expanding populations. But as the world harvest slows down, water tables fall, and temperatures rise, shortages and conflicts will increase.
In the United States CIA officials have been particularly concerned about issues of land use and water rights. They are asking environmental questions now, such as, what could happen if population pressure overwhelms environmental capacity? In a place like Djibouti (in the Horn of Africa area), for example, the number one cause of death is dehydration. The country is beset with serious social problems, extreme poverty, crime, violence and drug use. The soil looks like yellow talcum powder -- nothing can grow in it. Likewise, this week an acute water shortage hit a town in Ghana where residents have been compelled to use water from the Birim River for domestic use. The Birim River has been polluted by years of mining activity and the people are worried about an epidemic (Ghana: Acute Water Shortage Hits Oda New Town, 2006).
Russia is another place where water is a key issue. Intelligence there has found that in places where conflicts exist over natural resources, social instability is greatly increased.
A photo in Global Resources: Abuse, Scarcity, and Insecurity (2004) shows Russian children playing on an abandoned ship that once floated at the edge of the Aral Sea. Unsustainable environmental manipulation and mismanagement of resources left the area short of water and now the ship is on dry land. The old Soviet government tried to grow cotton in a high-desert area and built an elaborate irrigation system. When the Soviet Union disbanded, the system was not maintained. Now access to water is a key factor in security there.
Solutions in Progress
The magnitude of the problem with the environment worldwide might make it seem as though nothing is being done, but localized trends toward re-establishing balance between human activities and the planet are beginning to make small positive impacts in various places around the world.
The defense community, for example, did not used to be very interested in the environment, but now defense experts are more concerned about environmental stressors because the consequences can lead to violent conflict and lack of security. However, defense officials are still somewhat slow to take action in some cases. If a foreign plot were hatched to poison New York's water supply, for example, U.S. security forces would respond in a very timely manner. But when pollution is occurring more gradually, governments are less likely to react quickly -- despite the fact that the consequences are similar (Dannenmaier, 2001).
A new awareness of the connection between stressed environments, conflict over diminished resources, and violence has reached the collective consciousness. During the last 10 years a new way of looking at the goals of sustainable environmental management coupled with concerns about national security has emerged in the defense community. Planners want to make long-term environmental interventions in order to avoid security threats. In the past when the consequences of an environmental disaster led to violent conflict, only then did the defense community become concerned. But now, they have seen that research management, if implemented earlier, can avert violence, social problems, and greater expense later. Understanding the dynamics of security often rests on understanding land and water use rights. What appears at first glance "to be strictly political tensions are often, in fact, rooted in environmental strains" (Global Resources, 2004).
During the Clinton administration a program called MEDEA began to make classified information, such as temperature data from the Arctic Ocean (important in global climate change studies) available to U.S. environmental scientists. Unfortunately, this program was shut down when Bush was elected because it was seen as Al Gore's pet project, but if Republicans are defeated in the next election, this useful program will probably be reinstated.
Population stability is important to conserving the natural resources of the planet. If the world population can be stabilized at around 7,500,000,000, economic breakdowns in countries with large population increases (where they are already over-consuming resources) may be avoided. Thirty-six countries in Europe have already done this. Population control depends on family planning being available to everyone and should rest on a basis of health care for everyone.
Iceland adopted a national plan to change its carbon-based energy economy to one that uses hydrogen. They started with a bus fleet, started to convert automobiles next, and eventually will convert their whole fishing fleet. Brazil switched from gasoline to ethanol in only 7 years. If every country would follow suit, the world would soon be a cleaner place, and there would be fewer conflicts…