NEW YORK – The sharpening international geopolitical competition over natural resources has turned some strategic resources into engines of power struggle. Transnational water resources have become an especially active source of competition and conflict, triggering a dam-building race and prompting growing calls for the United Nations to recognize water as a key security concern.
Water is different from other natural resources. After all, there are substitutes for many resources, including oil, but none for water. Similarly, countries can import fossil fuels, mineral ores, and resources from the biosphere like fish and timber; but they cannot import water, which is essentially local, on a large scale and on a prolonged – much less permanent – basis. Water is heavier than oil, making it very expensive to ship or transport across long distances even by pipeline (which would require large, energy-intensive pumps).
The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds ninety billion barrels of undiscovered oil. This is almost three times annual global consumption and could be as much as thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered reserves. The vast majority of Arctic oil, however, lies offshore – protected by fierce weather conditions that make drilling almost impossible, or at least very dangerous.
Commercial interest in the Arcticis nonetheless high. As recently as September the Norwegian government announced that forty-two companies had applied for drilling permissions in the Norwegian Arctic. Statoil alone applied for drilling in seventy-two new blocks and will drill nine new exploration wells next year. Meanwhile, Royal Dutch Shell (finally) received permission to drill to shallow depths at the Beaufort and Chukchi wells in Alaska, US.
India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers between them. Despite setting up a Joint River Commission for water management as early as 1972, tensions between the countries on how to share resources recently came to a head in a dispute over the Teesta River. At stake are the lives of countless people from West Bengal and Bangladesh who depend upon the river for survival.
To date, only one comprehensive river pact has been signed by India and Bangladesh – a 1996 bilateral treaty that established a 30-year water-sharing arrangement between the two countries. This was set to change in September 2011 when India’s Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, was due to sign a pact with his Bangladeshi counterpart regarding access and use of the Teesta River.
The Teesta – which has its source in Sikkim – flows through the northern part of West Bengal in India before entering Bangladesh, where after coursing through about 45km of irrigable land, merges with the Brahmaputra River (or Jamuna when it enters Bangladesh). In 1983, an ad-hoc water sharing agreement was reached between India and Bangladesh, whereby both countries were allocated 39% and 36% of the water flow respectively. The new bilateral treaty expands upon this agreement by proposing an equal allocation of the Teesta River.
In recent years, major reserves of oil have been discovered at various locations across Africa. If this ‘black gold’ represents an opportunity for economic growth, the fear that the windfall may not benefit the local populations – and maybe even become a curse – is shared by Sub-Saharan African citizens and experts alike.
“It is common practice for oil and gas producing countries to negotiate local content agreements with interested IOCs [International Oil Companies] in an attempt to secure for the country a higher share of the value from oil and gas projects. This trend has surfaced as a result of the realization of the poor economic performance of many resource rich countries despite their vast wealth.”
Resource-rich Western Sahara is at the top of the news this week, and the “last colonial conflict” in Africa is definitely an issue to watch.
Al Jazeera’s bureau in Morocco was closed down two weeks ago by the authorities. The news network gave its coverage of the Western Sahara issue as one of the main reasons. So if the Moroccan government doesn’t want us to know about what’s going on there, chances are it must be something interesting and worth digging deeper into.
Representatives of Morocco, the Polisario Front, Algeria and Mauritania are currently gathered in New York for a round of UN-brokered informal talks in an effort to end a conflict that has its roots in the 1970s. Just before the talks started, a raid by Moroccan forces on a Western Saharan refugee camp left dozens injured and four dead.
Western Sahara is likely to gain strategic importance as world reserves in phosphate are depleted, because it is one of the few regions in the world to hold large quantities of this key fertilizer. Moreover, the region possesses significant fisheries and offshore oil reserves, raising the strategic stakes further.
Morocco doesn’t want to let go of such a treasure vault, but the Polisario front has been pressing for a referendum on the independence of the region for years. The UN, on the other hand, has been monitoring a ceasefire between the two parties since 1991, keeping a fragile and unsustainable ‘peace’ of sorts in place.
But what does the recent raid and the closing down of Al Jazeera’s Morocco bureau say about Moroccan tactics in Western Sahara and will negotiations this time lead anywhere?
To learn more about the background to this conflict, explore our Digital Library holdings on Western Sahara. Some resources worth highlighting include:
A policy brief by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) outlining why the mediation process by the UN is not working
This situation report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) presenting the perspectives of both Morocco and the Polisario Front on the conflict
This report by International Crisis Group describing the costs of this protracted frozen conflict