Globalization and Scarcity - Center on International Cooperation ...

Globalization and Scarcity - Center on International Cooperation ...

At the same time, countries that are not dependent on

imported grain can also contribute to this emerging

competition for long>andong> ong>andong> food through their own long>andong>

use policies: as already noted, the IMF, World Bank ong>andong>

Goldman Sachs all argued in 2008 that the single most

significant driver of the food price spike was the diversion

of US agricultural long>andong> to biofuel production. 187

On water, the key risk comes from trans-boundary

fresh water resources. Today, there are 263 rivers that

either span or delineate international borders. 188 It is

important to note that so far, trans-boundary water

resources have tended to trigger cooperation rather than

conflicts between the countries that share them: research

by Oregon State University, for example, finds that

“cooperative interactions between riparian states over the

past fifty years have outnumbered conflictive interactions

by more than two-to-one.” 189

Another dimension of inter-state strategic resource

competition centers on the impacts of climate change,

ong>andong> particularly the effects of rising sea levels. Current

international law on maritime borders awards countries

territorial rights extending 200 miles offshore from their

coastlines, for example – but is silent on what happens if

those coastlines recede because of climate change. 195 This

grey legal area introduces the potential for future conflicts

over issues including:

• Border disputes, including in the South China Sea ong>andong>

the Gulf of Mexico;

• Ownership of undersea energy resources (notably in

the Arctic);

• Newly navigable waterways (such as the North-West

Passage ong>andong> Northern Sea Route);


However, the same research also finds that 158 of the

world’s 263 international river basins “lack any type of

cooperative management framework.” 190 Moreover,

with the prospect of climate change to consider, there

is no guarantee that the future will look like the past. A

particular concern here is the fact that many water-sharing

agreements are based on a set volume of water rather

than a percentage of what is available. 191

• The sovereignty rights, resource claims, ong>andong>

populations of low-lying islong>andong> states that disappear

under rising sea levels;

• The fate of ‘climate refugees’, which some estimates

suggest could number 200 million by 2050 (although

the number is disputed, ong>andong> UNHCR also questions

the very idea of ‘environmental refugees’). 196

The risk of glacial retreat, most notably in the Himalayas,

has also triggered concern about future water-driven

conflict risks – as well as controversy, given the recent furor

over erroneous IPCC projections that 80% of Himalayan

glaciers would have disappeared by 2035. Existing glaciers

provide dry season water resources to 1.3 billion people

living in river basins including the Mekong, Irrawaddy,

Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze ong>andong> Yellow River. 192

As temperatures rise, some estimates (still valid, despite

the recent IPCC controversy) suggest the risk of future

dry season flow reductions of as much as 60-70% on the

Ganges. 193 These kinds of forecast have led to increased

concern about the potential risk of capture of water

resources by particular countries (for instance in India,

where there are fears about the potential for China to dam

ong>andong> divert the Brahmaputra river). 194

Why is multilateral cooperation needed

Of all of the areas of action considered in this paper, it is

in the context of strategic resource competition that the

case for multilateralism is clearest. While the extent of

globalization today may be unprecedented, conflict over

resources is one of the oldest stories in the book – ong>andong> it

is, after all, preventing violent conflict between states that

forms the principal raison d’être of the UN system.

Even in scenarios that do not slide as far as war, the zero

sum competition that scarcity issues might prompt could

still lead to a steady erosion of multilateral effectiveness.

The food ong>andong> fuel price spike demonstrated how the

political ong>andong> economic impacts of scarcity can effectively

force states to ignore their long term shared interests



ong>Globalizationong> ong>andong> ong>Scarcityong> | Multilateralism for a world with limits

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