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Land, water and energy: an overview

19 May 2008

The three essential resources of land, energy and water are connected by the same crisis of inequality driven by increasing privatization and corporate control. While universal provision remains an eminently practical goal, it requires a shift in global priorities and wide-scale redistribution through a system of international sharing monitored by an effective and representative United Nations.

Although the social consequences of privatization and free-market policies are increasingly being questioned in the wealthiest nations, the harshest effects are felt in struggling economies across the developing world.  All the core issues of land, energy and water can be separately referred to as a development ‘crisis’ that affects the poorest most.  The ownership and distribution of these natural resources has therefore become a central question in the schismatic debate over economic globalization as the dominant approach to international trade and development. 

Land Crisis

A manifold crisis in land has evolved since the Green Revolution of the 1970s, marked by immense increases in agricultural production but at the cost of driving countless poor people out of the countryside. Without the necessary finances to secure land tenure or invest in industrial technology, small farmers have proven incapable of competing against large agri-businesses in globalised food markets.

As actively highlighted by campaigners like Food First and La Via Campasina, the escalating land crisis is directly attributable to a global economic system that prioritises agricultural exports and cash crops over food self-sufficiency; investor interests and private property over community cohesion and rural values; and the exploitation of natural resources over sustainable practices in land usage. 

Read more - land: key facts and resources

Energy-Poverty Nexus

The crisis in energy provision is commonly referred to as the energy-poverty nexus; around 40 percent of the world population is currently denied access to modern fuels for cooking and heating, with 1.6 billion people living without electricity.  The two-fold energy crisis – defined by the challenge of curbing CO2 emissions and switching from fossil fuel use in the rich nations, coupled with the need to supply even basic modern energy to the developing countries – is set to inexorably worsen in decades to come.

By 2030, 1.4 billion people are expected to still lack electricity, while energy consumption is set to grow by almost 60 percent when considering the rapidly industrializing BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and a dramatic rise in population.  With an investment of $20 trillion needed to meet the world’s surging demand for energy over the next two decades, it is inevitably the poorest citizens who will come last in future energy supplies. This monumental challenge, representing one of the greatest divisions between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of rich and poor countries, starkly emphasizes the unsustainability of an economic system based on an ever-expanding consumption of resources and limitless growth.

Read more - Energy: key facts and resources

Global Water Crisis

The profound inequality defining the global water crisis paints the clearest picture of the international community’s failure to provide essential needs as a human right.  More water is wasted today than at any other time in history, whilst 1.1 billion people in developing countries lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation.  A mere 12 percent of the world’s population, all living in the richest countries, use up 85 percent of its water.  In 2006, however, the United Nation’s Human Development Reporton the water crisis built its thesis against a “gloomy arithmetic” of shortage.  As reflected in the provision of energy and the usage of land, the report identified the heart of the water crisis as rooted in power, poverty and inequality, and not in physical availability.

At the heart of the inequitable access to essential resources has been an economic process which has historically aggregated these resources into the hands of a relative minority, who continue to determine the method of their allocation and distribution – usually through market-based mechanisms. Often described as the ‘subtle monopolization’ of social wealth, the process of privatization can be traced back to the Middle Ages in England when land was confiscated from common ownership, and later entitled to private owners in a series of enclosure acts passed between 1760 and 1844.  The neoliberal policies of today can be viewed as a modern extension of such monopolistic control over the ‘global commons’. As a result, these resources are increasingly owned or controlled by multinational corporations, and the commercial mechanisms they use to distribute their products fail to reach those who cannot afford to pay the ‘market price’.

Read more - Water: key facts and resources

Sharing and Redistribution

Evidence shows that universal provision of modern energy, water, and the fair usage of land is an eminently practical goal that could be immediately achieved, but one which requires wide-scale redistributive measures that are currently evaded by the most powerful nations.  Ecologists have long argued for global policies to coordinate the equitable use of scant resources, including land.  Key figures in the water justice movement, such as Maude Barlow, call for a humanitarian system of ‘water sharing’ distinct from the purely economic concerns for short-term profit and ‘water trading’ through privatization. 

To achieve an agreed social minimum of resource provision for all citizens, however, requires a fundamental shift from the present emphasis on economic growth, towards a human rights-based approach which regards the securing of basic needs as the essential marker of development progress.