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READ: Conflict Over Natural Resources

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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. Why, according to the author, do some scholars believe that future wars may be fought over access to water?
  2. According to Spoden, how were the two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century related to resource control?
  3. How did resource access and control make the decolonization process violent as well?
  4. Although direct colonial rule largely ended in the decades after World War II, how have former colonial powers continued to influence and control resources and economies of former colonies?
  5. What are some more recent examples that Spoden uses to illustrate direct military intervention in the name of resource control?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Do you think conflicts over natural resources will become more or less frequent and violent in years to come? What are some aspects of the globalization process that might make these conflicts more common and more violent? What are some factors that could potentially help prevent or reduce the violence of conflict over natural resources?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Conflict Over Natural Resources

Photo of large piles of bananas being loaded onto a train.
By Jeff Spoden
People have always killed each other over resources. The twentieth century was no exception, as empires and nation-states battled for control of resources that have become increasingly scarce.
Water. You turn on the faucet and it spills out. You flush the toilet and the nasty stuff you just deposited disappears. You probably take it for granted. But have you ever considered that although the Earth is covered in water, only .03 percent is fit for consumption? That means 99.7 percent of the planet's water is unusable! Humans dump about 2 million tons of sewage and waste into the world's waters every day. Almost 1 billion people cannot access clean water. With a growing global population, it's a recipe for disaster. Could a water shortage cause a war? No really, search the Web for, "Will wars be fought over water?" and you'll find many organizations, think-tanks, and writers, answering with a worried "Yes."
Photo of humanitarian workers distributing large yellow jugs of water to locals in the Horn of Africa during the 2011 drought.
We are often taught that wars have political causes—that they are conflicts over global power or nationalist pride. But as the climate changes, it seems more and more likely that future conflicts will be fought over access to natural resources. That's not new. The major conflicts of the twentieth century were motivated, entirely or partially, by access to natural resources. If water motivates future wars, they might resemble past wars over gold, silver, oil, forests, copper, oil, aluminum, bananas, oil, and hundreds of other resources possessed by one group and wanted by another.

The big wars and colonialism

Conflict over resources played a part in the most devastating wars of the twentieth century. Many history books explain the causes of World War I as nationalistic antagonism, military build-up, and the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. But behind it all was the competition for African and Asian resources. European powers carved up Africa and competed with each other in Asia in a relentless pursuit of colonies. They needed to feed their growing industries, and colonies provided both the natural resources and cheap labor to extract them. Britain and France built global empires in the nineteenth century. Germany was late to the game of colonial conquest and wanted to "catch up" to its European economic rivals. Fierce competition for colonies and their resources was a big cause of World War I.
Like most sequels, World War II was more of the same, but worse. There were major economic components. In the European theater, Adolph Hitler wanted to rule Europe, providing the German people with more Lebensraum—"living space." He also wanted access to the resources required to compete with economic giants such as the U.S. In the Pacific theater, Japan wanted its own empire to rival those of the United States and Europe. Japan attacked China and expanded in other parts of Asia. The United States responded with an embargo (stoppage of trade) against Japan. They refused to sell oil, rubber, iron, and other raw materials necessary for industrial growth and Japan's war with China. Desperate for resources—particularly oil—Japanese military leaders invaded Southeast Asia (Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, Vietnam, etc.). They also decided that to get colonies, the American Navy would have to be crippled. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese navy bombed the American fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The United States immediately declared war on Japan and entered World War II.
Photo of an Alaskan harbor directly after being bombed by Japanese forces. Large amounts of smoke can be seen billowing into the air.
Japanese attack Dutch Harbor, June 3, 1942. A group of Marines is on the alert between attacks. Smoke from burning fuel tanks in background had been set afire by a dive bomber the previous day. Alaska. © Getty Images.

Decolonization – Messy breakups

After the two world wars, colonized peoples rose up to reject colonial political control. But anti-colonial leaders knew that their long-term political stability and independence depended on their ability to control their nation's wealth of natural resources. In this context, the wars that were fought to overthrow colonial rule, gain independence, and establish self-governance were also conflicts over natural resources. Here are three examples:
  1. Egypt: In 1956, after Britain's withdrawal, Gamal Abdel-Nasser became president and immediately seized control of the nation's resources. He redistributed land from wealthy landowners to farmers. He nationalized the Suez Canal, an important waterway linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea—because whoever controlled the canal also controlled oil shipments from the Middle East to Europe. That's why Britain, France, and Israel invaded, in a failed attempt to return control of the canal to the British.
  2. French Indochina (Vietnam): Another popular nationalist leader, Ho Chi Minh, led Vietnamese forces against Japanese, French, and American occupying armies from 1941 until his death in 1969. Indochina had provided rubber, tin, timber, tungsten, and bauxite start superscript, 1, end superscript to the French empire since the mid-nineteenth century.
  3. Dutch East Indies (Indonesia): After World War II, national leaders declared Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands. The Dutch refused, wanting to maintain easy access to Indonesia’s oil, timber, copper, coal, tin, and bauxite. A four-year guerilla war finally convinced the Dutch to leave.
Photo of Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, proclaiming independence. A crowd of supporters are gathered behind him.
Sukarno, the first president of Indonesia, proclaiming independence, 1945. Public domain.


Though colonial empires started disappearing after 1945, the former colonial powers continued to dominate the economies and resources of decolonized nations. Western capitalist nations gave up "official" control of their colonies, but as buyers of resources, they still had unofficial power over many places in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In these places, the economic structures—created by colonialism—made them dependent on their former colonizers for financial and humanitarian aid. It was actually Western corporations, more than governments, that many former colonies now needed to keep their economies afloat. Those businesses employed their people (at very low pay) and bought their resources.
In many places, such as Iran and Guatemala, these corporations—backed by Western states—meddled in local politics. Some scholars call this "neocolonialism." The goals of neocolonialism are economic: Access to natural resources and cheap labor. A growing middle class of American consumers after 1945 demanded more consumer goods. American companies turned to the decolonizing world for cheap raw materials to feed this demand. While African, Asian, and Latin American countries were breaking free from colonial rule, their economies were still very much dominated by the United States, Britain, and France.

Black gold

And what was the most important of these resources? Oil. Since geologists determined that the Earth's largest supply of easily extractable oil was under the Middle East, there have been many struggles for control of this precious resource. The Suez Canal example is one of many. In 1953, Iran's prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh, nationalized the country's oilfields. American and British intelligence agencies—in support of a British oil corporation—overthrew Mosaddegh's government. In the 1980s, Iran and Iraq fought a war in which both sides bombed oil refineries on land and oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. In 1991, Iraq invaded Kuwait, claiming that Kuwait was draining the oil deposit under both countries. The United States responded by invading Iraq. In 2003, when the Americans again invaded Iraq, part of the justification for war was to take away Iraq's ability to use "weapons of mass destruction," but another motivation was American control of Iraqi oil fields.
Photo of Iraqi oil fields burning. Large fires emit thick smoke throughout the field.
Few things can symbolize the prioritization of resources in political conflicts than this image of Iraqi oil fields burning in 1991. Saddam Hussein’s military set fire to the oil fields as they retreated to Baghdad. From the United States Army, public domain.

Banana Republic – Not a clothing store

Oil might be more valuable, but the humble banana has also provoked violent conflicts. Multinational corporations have turned huge profits from banana crops in the twentieth century. And they have violently defended those profits. For example, United Fruit, a U.S. company, made billions growing bananas in Central and South America. In the process, the company paid off politicians, hired thugs to terrorize workers, and orchestrated the overthrow of governments.
In 1954, Jacobo Arbenz, the newly elected president of Guatemala, nationalized land owned by United Fruit and gave it to peasants. In response, the wealthy and influential United Fruit executives called their friends in the American government. The CIA bombed Guatemala's capital and initiated a coup that drove Arbenz from the country. Thus began 50 years of struggle for workers and peasants, 200,000 of whom have been killed, fighting one dictatorial regime after another.
Photocopy of a CIA memorandum with the subject line "CIA's Role in the Overthrow of Arbenz". The document is marked as "Secret".
CIA memorandum describing the agency’s role in the overthrow of Arbenz. From the US Central Intelligence Agency, public domain.


Unfortunately, these scenes have played out across the globe, with powerful corporations claiming the best land to grow cash crops such as bananas, coffee, tea, cocoa, and other commodities for consumption by people in the United States and Europe. The poor are forced onto less productive land, or into already crowded cities, and cycles of poverty continue. Some rebel against the corrupt politicians who profit from this system. These rebellions, revolutions, and civil wars are as much about access to resources as the imperialist conquests of the nineteenth century. After such conflicts, common people still don't have access to the resources they need, while the wealth of their nation flows to their former colonizers.
Which leads us back to water. In the past 15 years, there have been at least 100 conflicts—most of them bloodless—over access to water. But as drinkable water becomes scarcer and the Earth's population grows, will water conflicts remain non-violent? Will the rich nations of the world drain water from poorer countries as they have with most other resources? Will revolutions be fought by common people who refuse to let their children die from contaminated water? These and other questions will become more important as climate change reduces access to fresh water.
Author bio
Jeff Spoden is a retired social studies teacher, having been in the classroom for 33 years. He taught US history, world history, sociology, international relations, and history of American popular music.

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