Obama and Global Security

Politicians such as Barack Obama will discuss climate change this week. But are we really debating resource distribution? By Gareth Evans.


"The world must come together to confront climate change. There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, famine and mass displacement that will fuel more conflict for decades. For this reason, it is not merely scientists and activists who call for swift and forceful action – it is military leaders in my country and others who understand that our common security hangs in the balance."

President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance address held arguably the most compelling reason for nations to unite in making radical changes to humanity's stewardship of the planet. Beyond the disagreements between rich nations and poor and setting aside accusations of "denial" or "belief", perhaps the real crux of the matter is the need to safeguard our own security – in terms of water and food as much as energy.

If we keep polluting, super-consuming and over-extracting, will it soon be time to stop debating whether global warming is anthropogenic and start worrying about resource wars?

Water wars

Many believe that battles over so-called "blue gold" will be inevitable in future. Maude Barlow, the Canadian activist recently appointed the UN's first senior adviser for water issues, has been warning of it for years, writing recently that water will "in a large part determine whether our future is peaceful or perilous". UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has himself cautioned that water scarcity could provide the flash-point for conflict, potentially "transforming peaceful competition into violence".

The reasoning cannot be clearer. One billion people do not have access to potable water and predictions suggest that within 20 years, about half the world's population will live in areas of significant water stress.

"Predictions suggest that within 20 years about half the world's population will live in areas of significant water stress."

According to an International Alert report 46 countries across the world are at risk of violent confrontations taking place by 2025, conflicts triggered by water and climate stress. Shifting rainfall patterns, droughts, floods and rising pollution are undoubtedly important issues but, the argument goes, things will become heated when taps run dry.

Not everyone agrees that we will see "water wars". Wendy Barnaby, editor of People and Science, wrote in Nature (19 March 2009) that "countries do not go to war over water, they solve their water shortages through trade and international agreements". Nevertheless, the lack of a formally declared inter-state war does not preclude conflict at a local level.

Feed the world

Before Band Aid sang about feeding the world, and long before the world knew the name Obama, another Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Norman Ernest Borlaug, demonstrated the importance of improving agricultural yield. In 1970 when he won, however, the population needing to be fed was only 3.7 billion. Today it is approaching seven billion and forecast to soar to about 9.4 billion by 2050.

Establishing long-term food security is, in part, another aspect of the squeeze on water resources. Almost half the global food supply comes from the one-fifth of the world's cultivated land that is irrigated. Achieving these returns is a thirsty business. In some areas of southern Europe alone, irrigation demand can account for about 80% of total water usage, according to the European Environment Agency.

With water supply already under pressure from a growing population and a changing climate, even with improvements to technology, extending the reach of irrigation will not be easy.

Yet as Dr Molly Brown, the scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre who is tasked with monitoring global land usage, has pointed out, there is already a need to double the amount of food available – as quickly as possible.

With little or no more land available, like Borlaug before her, she sees satisfying food demand as being achieved through increasing productivity. One thing is for certain: doing nothing is not an option. At September's World Water Week, the International Water Management Institute warned of potential food shortages unless Asian agricultural water usage is significantly reformed – and Asia is not alone.

Military

For all the talk of security, does this issue have a military element? Many seem to think the world's armed forces may find themselves facing an altogether different kind of threat over the coming years.

"The issues of food, water and energy security will remain, and scarcity will lead to disputes."

The 2003 report An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security makes clear that "military confrontation may be triggered by a desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water".

The point was echoed three years later by former UK Defence Secretary John Reid in his speech to Chatham House. He said such events would "make the emergence of violent conflict more rather than less likely". Three years on, President Obama alluded to it once more on the way to Copenhagen.

Whatever the outcome of COP-15 in terms of carbon targets and international aid, the fundamental issues of food, water and energy security will remain, and eventually scarcity will lead to disputes. Many questioned Obama's Peace Prize but perhaps by using his speech to broaden the environmental discussion – albeit briefly – he may help those who want the issue resolved peacefully.

Trust is essential for conflict resolution but probably the most precious and fragile resource in geo-politics. Fortunately, at least for the moment, it seems the 44th president has it in abundance. Judging from the scenes in Oslo, the world loves "Barack".