Center for Strategic Decision Research


Climate Change, Energy and Water Scarcity:
Three Likely Sources of Conflict

General of the Armed Forces Jiri Sedivy (Ret)
Former Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces

General Jiri Sedivy
"Changes in climate and the pumping of fossil fuel will likely create a very complicated situation that only radical action will be able to correct...the lack of food (in some regions), a lack of drinking water, and the draining of fossil fuel sources, namely, oil."

Democratic societies are solving a number of problems at present. Two of these problems, the complex security situation in Iraq and in Afghanistan, are top issues, with one common denominator: Terrorism. While we connect the terrorist attacks with radical Islamists, Islam itself is not necessarily the source. For example, at the 2003 Workshop, we heard the interesting presentation by Mr. Satish Chandra of India on the issue of water sources. This problem has the potential of resulting in armed conflict. 

I would like to turn your attention now to many other problems that are possible sources of large and extensive conflicts if mankind does not solve them today. 


Regardless of the ever-increasing number of inhabitants on our planet, the changes in climate and the pumping of fossil fuel will likely create a very complicated situation that only radical action will be able to correct. Such changes involve three major issues: The lack of food (in some regions), a lack of drinking water, and the draining of fossil fuel sources, namely, oil. A study conducted for the Pentagon, entitled “Sudden Climate Change,” as well as a number of other models, show that global warming and other climate changes in specific regions are occurring, including a growing trend toward extreme natural disasters and rising sea levels, with appropriate consequences. 

The costs for dealing with extreme natural events has increased in recent decades. Global economic losses resulting from these catastrophes have risen 10.3 times, from 3.9 billion USD a year in the 1950s to 40 billion USD a year in the 1990s. In addition, the annual report of the world’s largest secure insurance company, Munich Re, states that in 2003 natural disasters caused seven times more casualties than in 2002, when the number was 75,000, including 40,000 lost from the single December earthquake in Iran. 

Besides earthquakes, which are of course unpredictable and cannot be foreseen, the extreme heat in Europe in 2003, perhaps connected with global warming, claimed 20,000 casualties. In the American Midwest, tornadoes devastated the area in May, and fires in California turned thousands of homes to ashes. The fires cost the insurance sector almost 2 billion USD, while hailstorms during the tornadoes caused damage in the amount of some 1 billion USD. 

What we can conclude from these facts is that we can expect a higher number of catastrophes and natural disasters in upcoming years as a result of the increased effects of global warming. 

Regarding fossil fuels, current society is dependent on hydrocarbons—oil and natural gas. That is because these fuels contain the most energy per unit (oil contains the most). But these sources are nonrenewable. It is alarming how they are being exhausted and used. 

When we look at fuel in a context of energy commodity balance – two-fifths of mankind consumption is represented by oil (followed by coal, natural gas, and energy from hydroelectric and nuclear power plants). 

According to the energy synopsis by Jan Hansen (2001), global production of oil culminated in 2000, which means that it will go down in about five years. Maximum production is 90 million barrels a day, even though demand is at 75 million barrels a day, and production is expected to grow by 2.5% per year, to 100 million barrels a day until 2010. The problem is that, except for the Middle East and the Caspian Sea, the rest of the world’s well-known oil sites have decreased their production. Attention, therefore, will undoubtedly turn to these two regions. 


At the present time, seizure of natural sources is “the good reason” behind most conflicts, which explains the militarization of the Caspian region. Russia is presently active in that region conducting military exercises of a complex nature. The Caspian fleet has undergone changes and part of the Baltic Sea naval force has been transferred. Also in 2001 the 77th Self-Contained/Independent Marine Brigade was formed. 

Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, with the support of the U.S., will be building up their own naval fleets. The U.S. itself is reinforcing its influence in this region through various indirect activities. In the summer of 2001, a potential conflict between Azerbaijan and Iran was noted when Iran used its naval force and its air force to protect geologic survey works at a crude-oil field in a disputed area of the southern part of the Caspian Sea. At the same time, the Caspian region has not met expectations so far—it should hold at least 10% of the world's reserves— but at present the major pumping countries only get about 1.5%. However, the Caspian region expects almost a 7% yearly increase, and if there are no changes and no other sources discovered, it will be possible to pump crude oil in this region till 2023.


Yet industrially developed countries are using energy to the detriment of developing countries. For instance, the average consumption of one Canadian citizen a year, recalculated to an oil equivalent, is 10,000 kilograms. An inhabitant of Ethiopia uses only about 20 kilograms. This is hugely disproportionate. In addition, oil is consumed in economically developed countries but the major suppliers of oil are developing countries. 

In terms of total figures, nations in the industrialized world continue to consume more of the world´s petroleum products than those of the developing world. This gap is projected to narrow considerably between 2001 and 2025, however. In 2001, developing nations consumed about two-thirds (64%) as much oil as the industrialized nations, but by 2025 they are expected to consume 94% as much as the industrialized nations. This shift in consumption proportions can lead to tensions over oil sources. 

Although there is no immediate danger that the world will run short of oil, at the present pumping rate, reserves are expected to last for 20 to 30 years until about 2026. 

According to the World Energy Council, serious energy problems may not arise until after 2050, but it is necessary nonetheless to develop new sources and to have commonly observed conservation measures applied to current sources. Another source of information indicates that there are 1,020 billion barrels of known oil reserves, with 23.6 billion barrels being pumped a year: If there is no increase and pumping is kept at the 1998 level, reserves will last until 2041. According to a further source, there are 140.9 billion tons of oil in reserve, and if pumping continues at 3.47 billion tons a year, global oil reserves would be depleted before 2026. 

However, even if I was certain that some radical changes will be made regarding energy consumption, the disproportionate allocation of reserves will never be solved, nor will the disproportionate consumption of energy or the gradual emptying of individual pumping sites. 

Here are some statistics: 

  • OPEC has 108.4 billion tons of oil, or 76.9% of world reserves. The rest of the world has 32.5 billion tons. 
  • The largest verified oil reserves in the world are in the Middle East—91.6 billion tons. Non-verified reserves are 68 billion tons – with 27.2 billion tons in OPEC member-countries. 
  • Regardless of the rate of pumping, oil could be pumped out from worldwide reserves for 41 years; from OPEC for 75 years; and from the Middle East for 88 years. 

Because of the worldwide decrease in oil production, which is connected to escalating tension in the struggle to hold influence over vanishing reserves, military clashes may occur following the 2025–2030 period if the problem is not solved by appropriate political action.


Now I would like to recall the presentation by Mr. Satish Chandra, the Deputy National Security Advisor of India, at last year's Twentieth International Workshop in Moscow. He discussed the point that a UN study concluded that almost two-thirds of the world’s population, which is about 5.5 billion people, will face a serious water shortage before the year 2025. 

The worst-case scenario predicts that around 2050 as many as 6 to 7 billion people will be endangered in 60 countries.Similarly, a study undertaken by the International Year of Water 2003 states that, in the near future, drinking water will become a source of tension and intense competition among nations. Future wars will likely not be waged for territory or for oil but for water. Worldwide, 1.2 billion people are starving because of a shortage of water, 2.4 billion people are living without adequate hygiene, and 60% of infant mortality is connected with poor water quality. It is estimated that up to 30 billion USD per year is spent on the production and distribution of drinking water as well as on providing hygiene. 

Today, one-third of the world’s population lives in countries in which the shortage of drinking water is the top issue—this includes Africa, western Asia, China, India, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Gaza strip, United Arab Emirates, the Bahamas, Qatar, the Maldives, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Malta, and Singapore. In addition, people today use 54% of all available water sources (lakes, rivers, and underground sources), but, under the present per capita consumption rates this could reach 90% in 25 years, leaving only 10% for the rest of the animal species. And, like petroleum pumping, drinking water pumping exhibits similar trends in the gap between developed and developing countries. Water consumption per capita per day in the U.S. is 7,200 liters (about 190 gallons) while in India it is 1,500 liters (about 40 gallons). 

During the last half-century, there were 507 international conflicts because of water. Violence accompanied 37 of them and military activities took place in 21. The majority of conflicts occurred in the Middle East. However, most likely by the year 2025, the situation will grow even worse. Many of the regions mentioned earlier will enter the “catastrophic” category, in which water consumption will be under 1.0 cubic meter per capita a year. Water consumption has more than tripled since 1950. 

The greatest rate of growth in water consumption is predicted to be in Africa and in the Middle East while the lowest rate of growth is expected to be in developed countries. The situation will be critical if nothing substantial is done in the Islamic regions and those regions influenced by Islam. 


In his deliberations, Samuel Huntington often goes too far but it is necessary to take his views into account. He states that Muslim countries resort to violence during international crises, and that they used it in 76 of the 142 crisis situations between 1928 and 1979 (his figures might be distorted because the last decades were not included). In 25 cases violence was used as the basic way to solve the crisis, and in the remaining 51 cases violence was used together with other means. Moreover, in Islamic countries violence was applied more than in any other place; 41% of the time it was part of full-scale war and 38% of the time the armed clashes were classified as serious. 

During 1993–1994, there were three times more civilian conflicts that included Muslim participation than conflicts among non-Muslim populations. There were also more conflicts within and between Islamic countries than in any other population. The West experienced only two conflicts. In addition, 48 localities in 1993 experienced ethnic conflicts. According to the New York Times, there were 59 ethnic conflicts in those localities that were direct clashes between Muslims and non-Muslims. There were 31 conflicts among various groups and two-thirds of them were waged between Muslims and members of another population. There were 10 tribal conflicts in Africa. 

If no crucial changes are made, we expect that: 

  •  energy resources will decrease around 2020 and an energy crisis will occur around 2050.  
  •  As to the use of water, the period around 2025 could be critical.  

There is also another challenge. If the sea level continues to rise at the rate of 1–2 millimeters per year, in a century the level will rise 9.88 centimeters. During the last one hundred years the sea level rose 10–20 centimeters. The last two factors alone could bring about a critical situation by 2020 and on. 


Scientific observations increasingly show that global warming is influenced by human activities. During this century, we are likely to see a 1.4 to 5.8degree Centigrade increase, which will affect our water distribution systems, water sources, seasonal cycles, ecosystems, extreme climate events, and many other things. Since the late nineteenth century, temperatures have risen by 0.6 degrees Centigrade plus/minus 0.2 degrees Centigrade. The greatest degree of warming took place between 1910 and 1940 and from 1976 until the present. In the northern hemisphere, where measurement is most accurate, the rate of warming during this century is higher than at any other time during the past one thousand years. Moreover, the 90s were the warmest decade of the millennium and 2002 was the warmest year ever. 

Climate models are now predicting that, without any major changes or arrangements to stop the expected effect, global temperatures will go up by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Centigrade up to the year 2100. These changes are greater than any that occurred in the past 10,000 years. Global warming will have a critical impact on all of mankind, affecting not only water sources and distribution systems but food production, sea levels, and natural disasters. Simulations show that warming by 0.6 °C could also lead to rising water expansiveness, but it is difficult to calculate the influence of the melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica and the slow rectifying of the northern continents when they become free of the load of age-old glaciers. 

Since the late 1960s, snow coverage has decreased by some 10% in the medium and higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere. During the last decades, the coverage of arctic sea ice has decreased by 10 to 15% in spring and summer, and also seems to be thinner by 40% in late summer and early autumn.  

In addition, precipitation is higher—0.5% to 1% per decade—in most high latitudes in the northern hemisphere, with 2% higher cloud coverage. Precipitation in tropical longitudes—10° south to 10° north—appears to be higher by 0.2% to 0.3% per decade. On the other hand, a decrease was observed over the northern hemisphere in subtropical areas (10º–30° north) during the twentieth century, 0.3% per decade. In parts of Africa and Asia, the rate and intensity of drought seem to be much worse.  

Global warming will have an effect on food production, namely in tropical and subtropical areas where agriculture is at the brink of high temperature tolerance. In central continental territories, such as the U.S. Corn Belt, and in vast parts of the medium latitudes of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Australia, dry and hot conditions are expected. But some improvement is likely to occur in Great Britain, Scandinavia, Europe, and North America.  

Water sources will also be affected by changes in precipitation and evaporation. The infrastructure in lowlands will be devastated because of rising sea levels, floods, and other extreme weather events. Some sources say that the sea level will rise by 0.2 m by 2010, by 0.5 m by 2040, and by 1.0 m by 2090 (The World Bank and The World Resources Institute). Another scenario, “IS92,” indicates an increase of 13 to 94 cm by 2100, and a “Lone Planet” scenario indicates an increase of some 8 to 30 cm by 2030 and 30 to 110 cm by 2100 (1 m of water is equal to 12 to 18% of the territory of Bangladesh). 

Globally, precipitation will grow, but it is not certain where. However it is certain that in the second half of the twenty-first century, winter precipitation will be higher in the higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere and in Antarctica. Some territories in tropical regions will have more precipitation while others will have less. Australia, Central America, and South Africa should receive increasingly smaller amounts of winter precipitation.  

The frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will likely change. With higher temperatures, there will probably be more hot days and heat waves and fewer frosty days and cold periods. Climate models continue to show extreme amounts of precipitation over many regions, with the risk of drought increasing in continental territories during summers. There is also evidence that hurricanes will be more intense, with more severe winds and more precipitation. In addition it is impossible to rule out other rapid and unexpected climate changes, the most dramatic of which would be the collapse of the western Antarctic ice shield. While this would lead to a catastrophic rise in sea level, it is not likely to happen in the twenty-first century.  

Changes in ocean water circulation also can have a considerable impact on regional climates (for instance, the weakening of the Golf Stream will warm Europe). This may occur over several decades, but it is unknown whether or not global warming will trigger changes in ocean water circulation. Climate models show that even if the Golf Stream loses its strength, Europe will get warmer because of the greenhouse effect. 

Social and economic systems tend to be vulnerable in developing countries that are economically ineffective and have weak institutions. People living in lowlands, slightly higher areas, and on small islands are particularly at risk. Densely populated areas are also more vulnerable to dangers such as storms, floods, and droughts. The most vulnerable populations live in the sub-Saharan region; in south, east, and southeastern Asia; and in the tropical territories of Latin America and some Pacific islands. 

High sea levels also threaten drinking water supplies with contamination, including those in Israel, Thailand, islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Caribbean Sea, and the Mekong Delta in China and Vietnam.  


While many people migrate from poor agriculture regions to urban areas, they often return to their homes because of a lack of space and work opportunities. Periodic droughts, floods, and cyclones worsen the situation. The soil becomes exhausted—there are two to three harvests per year—and drinking water in shallow wells becomes polluted with bacteria and chemicals. Deeper wells, on which nearly 40 million inhabitants depend, contain arsenic. It is expected that seasonal flooding will increase over a longer period of time because the higher sea level will slow down drainage in the affected region; it is also expected that living will get worse in these low-lying areas. This will lead to an increase in underground water salinity and therefore to the area’s further deterioration. For example, flooding in 1998 deprived as many as 16 million people of their homes.  

Future high tides will also be stronger as will cyclones. The most devastating cyclones were in 1970—300,000 to 500,000 people were killed—and in 1991cyclones claimed 140,000 to 200,000 lives. Fewer casualties were recorded after 1970 because a number of anti-cyclone barriers were built. 

Climate changes related to global warming will cause population migrations not only in Bangladesh but in other parts of the world. Either rising sea levels, inland floods caused by higher precipitation, or devastating droughts will result in long-lasting crop failure and famine. 

The solution is most likely to be found in eliminating differences among nations, but in times of huge migration it will also be found by preparing relatively large territories for settlement by millions of people or by integrating them into existing nations. 


The most endangered part of our planet is in the northern hemisphere, between 10º and 30°. In this area are countries in which Islam is the decisive state religion (out of 28 countries, 22 are at least 50% Islamic). Islam itself does not pose any problem, but some groups interpret and misuse it in their favor; in newly democratic areas they may use violence to solve problems. Lack of water or food or other effects of global warming, including mass migration, can worsen attempts to solve problems. This can lead to the use of terrorist tactics on an even greater scale. The period between 2025 and 2030 should be even more alarming than today.


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