Water-related projects planned or underway around the world exceed US$185 billion in value. Most focus on inland water, such as hydropower projects, which could ignite interstate conflicts over transnational river basins in Africa or contribute to sovereign debt distress. Water may also be channeled to serve manufacturing facilities and mining operations, thus increasing social unrest and contract frustration risks as water scarcity is perhaps the most socially unifying threat across the planet. Oceans represent one of the most promising frontiers for meeting the growing demand for food, raw materials, and even space to expand.
The “blue acceleration” refers to the unprecedented surge in economic activity in the ocean, with its immense potential for exploration. Much of the activity occurs in exclusive economic zones (EEZs), areas of the sea that generally extend 200 nautical miles (230 miles) beyond a nation's territorial sea, within which a coastal nation has jurisdiction over both living and non-living resources. When an overlap occurs between contested EEZs it is up to each state to decide the actual maritime boundary, which generates further areas of tension. The exploration and mapping of these resources is the first step towards extracting economic value, and also serves to guide patrols in these areas to help create favorable environments for domestic companies and international trade (see Figure 1). By extending jurisdictions, EEZs have the potential to increase political tensions.
Source: GEBCO - The General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans, 2020
The likely shift towards the diversification of supply chains resulting from the crisis in Ukraine — for example, towards Australia, India or Indonesia to substitute imports from Russia — could increase the focus on already congested sea areas, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. Tense confrontation in the South China Sea adds to growing disturbances in coastal states’ domestic environments. This area has become a flashpoint for the region, as US$3.4 trillion of goods pass each year through Beijing’s “nine-dash line,” a boundary unrecognized internationally that China has drawn around 85% of these waters. There is growing frustration with the slow pace of talks between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, as ASEAN countries fear losing EEZs and rights to map and explore, ultimately leading to an increase of revenues and geostrategic influence to the benefit of China. Due to the pandemic, there were no in-person negotiations in 2020-21, although virtual meetings resumed last year. ASEAN membership has helped members reduce frictions and seek common ground, even though ASEAN coastal members reject the nine-dash line.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that the largest sector of the ocean economy is the offshore oil and gas industry, which generates one-third of the value added by all economic activities in the ocean. About 70% of the major hydrocarbon deposits discovered between 2000 and 2010 are located under the sea, and, as fields in shallow waters (less than 400 meters) become depleted, production is moving to greater depths. While greenfield offshore exploration is concentrated in developing countries, a new study led by Duke University shows that multinational offshore companies that generate the most revenue from the ocean are generally headquartered in high-income countries. Offshore extraction is generally more expensive, but is also less affected by political tensions within individual countries. If the energy transition to a low carbon economy were to bring a reduction in offshore activities, the impact on host countries’ revenues and consequent political tensions would be significant.
The blue acceleration towards ocean resources is fueling tensions and geopolitical ambitions.
Source: Flanders Marine Institute (2019). Maritime Boundaries Geodatabase, version 11. Available online at https://www.marineregions.org/.
In the leading countries by EEZ extension, the risks of war and expropriation are relatively low, but the risks of terrorism, violence, and war itself have increased significantly on a relative basis (see Figure 2).
Marsh’s risk ratings are generated monthly by a proprietary, algorithm-based modelling system incorporating over 200 international indices across 197 countries. For each peril, countries are scored on a scale from 0.1 to 10.0, with intervals of one decimal; 0.1 represents the lowest risk score, 10.0 the highest. Five risk bands are identified within the scale, correspond to distinct risk environments.