NEW DELHI – Competition for strategic natural resources – including water, mineral ores, and fossil fuels – has always played a significant role in shaping the terms of the international economic and political order. But now that competition has intensified, as it encompasses virtually all of Asia, where growing populations and rapid economic development over the last three decades have generated an insatiable appetite for severely limited supplies of key commodities.
Asia is the world’s most resource-poor continent, and overexploitation of the natural resources that it does possess has created an environmental crisis that is contributing to regional climate change. For example, the Tibetan Plateau, which contains the world’s third-largest store of ice, is warming at almost twice the average global rate, owing to the rare convergence of high altitudes and low latitudes – with potentially serious consequences for Asia’s freshwater supply.
In other words, three interconnected crises – a resource crisis, an environmental crisis, and a climate crisis – are threatening Asia’s economic, social, and ecological future. Population growth, urbanization, and industrialization are exacerbating resource-related stresses, with some cities experiencing severe water shortages, and degrading the environment (as anyone who has experienced Beijing’s smog can attest). Fossil-fuel and water subsidies have contributed to both problems.
Faced with severe supply constraints, Asian economies are increasingly tapping other continents’ fossil fuels, mineral ores, and timber. But water is extremely difficult – and prohibitively expensive – to import. And Asia has less fresh water per person than any continent other than Antarctica, and some of the world’s worst water pollution.