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A Scientific View on Resource Security Challenges

Congressional Paper

As the world population reaches 7 billion, many countries regions confront a scarcity of those basic resources essential for human life—namely adequate food and water. More than just humanitarian crises, resource scarcities and conflicts challenge American security interests in strategic regions such as the Middle East and Asia. Scientists and engineers have the skills and technologies necessary to mitigate scarcity, reduce instability, and fight resource security challenges.

Water Security

Adequate access to clean water will be a defining crisis of the 21st century and an important policy challenge over the next decade. Defined as “the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-­? related risks to people, environments and economies”, the absence of water security challenges U.S. military and security interests.

Over the next decade, water security challenges before the U.S. Congress will include:

  • Severe water shortages driving conflict and instability in the Middle East. Local and interstate armed conflict over water rights and access has already taken place; the potential for further violence grows as water scarcity threatens human and economic security, the legitimacy of U.S. partner governments, and the U.S anti-­terrorism strategy. Already in water-­scarce rural Yemen, an Al Qaeda stronghold, water access is a factor in up to 70% of armed conflict.
  • Heightened tension and violence over shared water resources in Asia. Every country in South and Central Asia relies upon transboundary river basins to meet the water demands of a growing population. These basins are increasingly a source of conflict as water flows decline and China and India aggressively develop their hydroelectric programs—threatening the water access of downstream countries. Over the past decade alone there have been more than five major conflicts related to Indian water storage and diversion projects, that Pakistan views as hostile and which an influential militant group in Pakistan refer to as acts of “water terrorism.

Science and technology can play a key role alleviating water conflict and water shortages:

  • Minimizing the water scarcity that drives conflict by deploying more efficient water treatment and reuse technologies; increasing storage capacity at local and nationwide levels; working to install sustainable energy-­based desalination capabilities; and improving the performance of and access to water delivery systems.
  • Reducing uncertainty and mistrust between upstream and downstream countries by accurately predicting and monitoring water flows and quality in transboundary water systems. As precipitation levels decline in many regions and river basins critical to US security interests— including the Nile, Indus, Jordan, Tigris, and Euphrates Rivers—understanding and sharing flow data will be critical to treaty compliance and peaceful cooperation.

Food security

We are moving into a new era of food scarcity, where the lack of adequate access to food and nutrition is no longer the sole purview of the developing world but extends into economically advanced countries, contributing to poor health, loss of productivity, social unrest and instability.

Over the next decade, food security challenges before the U.S. Congress will include:

  • Food insecurity, especially when caused by higher food prices, heightens the risk of democratic breakdown, civil conflict, protest, rioting, and communal conflict. As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes, the revolts which heralded the start of the ‘Arab Awakening’ in 2011 were partially initiated by rapid increases in the price of food.
  • There is some historic evidence linking declining agriculture yields to periods of regional interstate conflict. Japan’s decision to invade China and Indochina as well as Nazi Germany’s move to acquire Lebensraum are partly attributed to demographic pressures arising from the scarcity of arable land. While it seems unlikely in the near future that interstate conflict will arise from food shortages, it is possible that the desire for arable land could be one of the many factors that lead two states to engage in hostilities.

Science and technology can play a key role alleviating food insecurity and subsequent instability:

  • Addressing the root causes of food insecurity through supporting research to reduce production constraints; increasing yield potentials for major crops and livestock through both traditional breeding and biotechnology; and improving management practices for aquaculture and fisheries.
  • Integrating advances in soil fertility, animal science, agronomy, water management and nutrition to achieve a more sustainable approach to key production systems in poverty stricken areas.
  • Capacity building scientific enterprises in poorer developing countries to expand knowledge in the agriculture and food related sciences, particularly focusing on directly involving women to enhance food security on a household basis.

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