Rain gives peace to people

Domestic conflicts

Dr. Solveig judge

is a research associate in the EU External Relations research group at the Science and Politics Foundation (SWP) in Berlin. Her research focuses on peace and conflict research as well as the promotion of democracy through international organizations, particularly in Southeastern Europe.

The struggle for resources is now the second most common cause of conflict. The use of force in this type of conflict also increased steadily. The causes are usually complex and often lie primarily in political problems and disputes.

People struggle with extreme storms and rain in the Kibati refugee camp near Goma in eastern Congo. (& copy AP)

Scarcity of resources is discussed as one of the greatest structural risks for conflict in the 21st century. [1] Resources include, for example, rocks, salts, fossil fuels, minerals, metals, soils, forests, water, wind or solar energy. [2] As early as 2009, the United Nations Environment Program stated that there was "significant potential for worsening conflicts over natural resources in the next few decades". [3] On the occasion of the International Day for the Prevention of the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict on November 6, 2017, the UN Secretary-General emphasized that the environment itself often becomes a "victim" of war and that the protection of natural resources is therefore central to peace and sustainable development be. [4]

Resource scarcity and resource abundance - both are a risk of conflict

The competition for resources is an important factor in international conflict. At the same time, the statistical facts - in contrast to some disaster scenarios - paint a more differentiated picture: According to the Heidelberg Conflict Barometer, the topic of resources played a role in 97 of a total of 385 low to high intensity conflicts in 2017 [5]. The importance of resources as an issue of conflict has increased in recent years. You are now in second place after so-called regime conflicts, which are about changing the political system. In addition, resource conflicts are becoming increasingly violent. The sporadic or massive use of violence has increased steadily in recent years (2000: approx. 30%, 2010: 44%, 2017: 65% in). In 2017, resources played a decisive role in 17 of a total of 36 violent conflicts with high intensity - including the fight over drugs in Mexico, arable land in Nigeria or valuable mineral resources in the DR Congo.

The majority of the resource conflicts recorded by the Heidelberg Conflict Barometer (80%) are of a domestic nature. Both a lack and an excess of resources can have a conflict-causing or escalating effect. For example, the 2010 hunger riots in Haiti were mostly about food shortages, while the renewed flare-up of violence in South Sudan in 2013 is closely linked to the struggle for political supremacy and control over the rich oil reserves.

In contrast, resources played a central role in only 17 out of 65 interstate conflicts. This mostly concerned the distribution of scarce resources, such as fossil fuels or water. Examples include large dam projects, such as India's announcement of a new dam on the Chanab River, which also flows through Pakistan, or the renaissance dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, which will also supply Sudan and Egypt with water. Scarcity and wealth are closely linked, because the more a raw material is in demand internationally, the higher the returns the conflicting parties can realize at national level.

A differentiated analysis shows that resources alone are rarely decisive for the emergence or escalation of violent conflicts. Of the 97 resource conflicts counted in 2017, only six had the dispute over resources as the only subject or cause. All other conflicts were primarily about something else - regional supremacy or territories, for example. The six "pure" resource conflicts were also of much less intensity than other conflicts (two conflicts entirely without violence, four violent crises and no wars at all). Obviously - and this is the most important finding from the statistical data - scarcity or abundance of resources are only in the rarest of cases the cause of conflicts. In order to better understand the complex dynamics of conflict, it is worth taking a detailed look at the most important theoretical explanations.

Scarce resources and political rivalries

The perception that this type of conflict represents a growing security risk results primarily from the increasing scarcity of resources around the world. The reasons for this are very diverse:

- the economic upturn in emerging and developing countries, especially China, - the global growth of key sectors such as telecommunications and digitization, which require specific materials (e.g. ores) that are only available in a few countries and can be mined, - the increase of the world's population and - climate change.

Whether the competition for resources intensifies does not depend solely on the available physical quantity, but rather on the relative scarcity, i.e. on the specific distribution of deposits and access rights as well as demand. In a functioning market economy, the relationship between supply and demand is regulated by price and thus peacefully. After all, basically all sides have the opportunity to cover their resource requirements through buying and trading. But this mechanism often works poorly, especially on the international raw material markets. Economic cartels and oligopolies or protectionist states distort the market due to their dominant market power or with tariffs and other trade restrictions. In addition, there are speculators who stir up turbulent price developments, exploit them and thus artificially cause scarcity or oversupply.

The distribution competition usually escalates when one party links competition for a certain resource with other interests or interprets it as a threat to its own security. In this context one speaks of the "securitization" of the resource problem. It is no longer just a question of distributing resources in line with the market, but rather political goals such as maintaining power, regional supremacy, secession or ideological dominance. Such political conflicts are associated with the use of force much more frequently than purely economic competition and are therefore more difficult to deal with and regulate. The gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine escalated mainly because both sides were mainly pursuing a political agenda. Moscow wanted to force Ukraine to pay a significantly inflated gas price. In return, Kiev closed the pipeline to Western Europe in order to raise strategic doubts there about the reliability of Russian natural gas supplies.

In the territorial dispute over the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands and other atolls and reefs in the South China Sea, which has been intensifying since 2015, not only the rich oil and gas reserves or fish stocks play a role, but also tough security aspects. The other riparian countries and the US are concerned about the expansion of the Chinese military presence, which is giving China control of one of the world's busiest sea trade routes. For the future, this harbors additional potential for conflict in the great power conflict between China and the USA.

"Dissatisfaction" and "Greed" as internal causes of conflict

Resource conflicts can arise when population groups defend themselves against abuses in distribution or in access to vital resources. Conflict research speaks of "dissatisfaction" (English: "grievance") as a cause of conflict. Mostly it is about very elementary common goods, such as land, forest or water. In a globalized world, international actors can trigger or exacerbate such grievances. One example is the acquisition of large estates by international companies. In 2009, the South Korean group Daewoo leased a substantial part of the arable land in Madagascar in order to grow palm oil and corn and ship them to South Korea. Then there were bloody uprisings against the government out of fear for their own supplies. The usually monocultural cultivation of agricultural products, which are in high demand in the global north, not only leads to the mass expropriation of smallholders, but also to negative changes in nature, for example through deforestation and soil erosion. Indigenous peoples, for whom the land and nature have a special cultural significance, are increasingly demanding greater respect for their rights.

Another cause of conflict is related to the wealth of resources. It is striking that such a "resource curse" can mostly be observed in resource-rich developing or emerging countries. [6] The prospect of advantage and profit arouses the "greed" of both state and economic and criminal actors. Weak statehood and poor governance also create a fertile breeding ground for corruption and clientelism. Distribution struggles and conflicts are fueled Profits flow into the pockets of political elites, international corporations and criminal networks. The general population mostly goes away empty-handed. Around 75% of the poor population now live in resource-rich countries. Last but not least, due to the bubbling income, other economic sectors are neglected and thus the opportunities for sustainable development playful.

Opposition and rebel groups gain access to and trade in resources to finance their struggle. This increases the risk of escalation for existing latent conflicts. Raw materials that are indispensable for the economic development of a country or a region become a "conflict resource" that causes conflicts over and over again. This is also confirmed by relevant research: According to this, greed rarely triggers open conflicts, but contributes significantly to prolonging them and preventing a peaceful solution. The peace agreement of September 2016 between the FARC rebels and the government in Colombia is now endangered, among other things, by the fact that paramilitary and criminal groups are trying to take control of the areas and coca plantations that the FARC rebels have established in accordance with the provisions of Have left the peace treaty.

Resources also provide incentives for cooperation and growth

Resource conflicts can also provide incentives for cooperation and growth. Common solutions can often be found more quickly if the market mechanism takes effect and politicians act moderately. The Nile Basin Initiative, for example, shows that scarce resources promote regional cooperation. It brings together ten countries in Africa with the aim of managing water resources cooperatively and achieving fair use. [7] A number of good examples show that resources can be a boon to a country's development. In Botswana, for example, the income from the sale of diamonds was invested in infrastructure and development measures, which makes the country better off in many ways compared to other African countries. [8]

Politics can initiate and support such developments through a wide range of measures: The toolkit for this ranges from resource management, i.e. improving the efficiency of mining and use, to promoting international institutions that regulate the distribution of resources, to development cooperation that promotes economic and political structures improved. The Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015 include several measures for a conflict-free use of resources, such as ensuring food security (Goal 2), the preservation and sustainable use of oceans and marine resources (Goal 14) or the protection of terrestrial ecosystems (Goal 15). [9]

Targeted measures are also intended to try to reduce the income from the so-called conflict resources. In 2000, the United Nations launched the "Kimberley Process", which aims to curb the trade in conflict diamonds through state certificates of origin. However, it is critical to note that so far only two peace missions (Liberia and DR Congo) have been explicitly mandated to deal with better resource management.


Beevers, Michael D. (2015): Governing Natural Resource for Peace: Lessons from Liberia and Sierra Leone, in: Global Governance, Vol 21, pp. 227-246.

Collier, Paul / Hoeffler, Anke / Rohner, Dominic (2009): Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility of Civil War, in: Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 61, pp. 1-27.

Humphreys, Macartan (2005): Natural Resources, Conflict and Conflict Resolution, in: Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 49, No. 4, pp. 508-537.

Koubi, Vally / Spilker, Gabriele / Böhmelt, Tobias / Bernauer, Thomas (2014): Do Natural Resources Matter for Interstate and Intrastate Armed Conflict? In: Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 51, No. 2, pp. 227-243.

Mildner, Stormy-Annika (Ed.) (2011): Conflict Risk Raw Materials? Challenges and opportunities in dealing with scarce resources, SWP studies 2011 / S 05, Berlin.

Schneckener, Ulrich / Lienkamp, ​​Andreas / Klagge, Britta / von Scheliha, Arnulf (Hrsg) (2013): Competition for resources, conflicts for climate, water and soil, Munich: oekom Verlag ,.


Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (2017): Conflict Barometer 2017. (the link gives access to the latest edition)

Science and Politics Foundation: Topic dossiers "Climate Policy"

Science and Politics Foundation: "Sustainable Development" dossier

Working group "Nature, Resources, Conflicts" of the AFK Working Group for Peace and Conflict Research

International Resource Panel of the United Nations Environment Program

Website of the UN peacekeeping operations on conflict and natural resources

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals