Resource Inequality

How many showers do you have a week? Do your parents tell you to switch the lights off when you leave a room? Do you have enough food every day? If you've thought about these questions, you are probably aware that people's answers around the world would differ. Food, water, and energy are vital for human survival. These resources are plentiful around the world, however, does this mean that everybody globally has equal and fair access to these resources? Quite simply, no. Resources are distributed unevenly globally, leaving some people in some parts of the world with very little. Where does resource inequality affect the most? What has caused this uneven distribution? Read on to find out more!

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Table of contents

    Resource Inequality definition

    The population of the world is rising. With more people in the world, more resources will be needed to meet the needs of this growing world population. Firstly, though, what is the definition of resources?

    Resources are the things that are used by people, which they either need to survive or to maintain a comfortable life.

    Resource inequality describes the way that resources are not shared equally; some people have more, and some people have less. This means that some areas of the world have a resource surplus (more than necessary) or a resource deficit (not enough).

    The resources that we will be exploring are:

    • Food
    • Water
    • Energy

    Depending on your exam board, you may get the choice between food, water, and energy. If this is the case, pick one and revise this in detail!

    Resource Inequality distribution

    Globally, for now, there are enough resources for every single person. However, the supply and consumption of resources vary around the world. Resources are distributed unevenly, resulting in massive inequalities. It is common to see that more developed countries, or High-Income Countries (HICs), have a greater distribution of resources, compared to Low-Income Countries (LICs). Let's take a look at this resource inequality distribution.

    Supply is the production of resources.

    Consumption is the use of these resources.


    People need food for survival. To maintain health, it is estimated that men require roughly 2500 daily calories, with women requiring 2000. Today, many HICs have an average calorie consumption of over 3500 calories per day. In contrast, LICs tend to consume fewer than the recommended 2000 calories per day. There is typically a surplus of food supplies in HICs, which can result in vast amounts of food waste. For example, in the United States, roughly 30-40% of food that is produced is wasted!

    LICs often suffer a food deficit. This deficit has caused many LICs to be food insecure, where people do not have access to nutritious and affordable food sources. This can result in undernourishment and even famines.

    Undernourishment occurs when people do not have access to enough nutrients.

    Famine is a result of limited access to food. It can cause starvation and death.

    Take a look at the graph below; it shows that higher rates of food insecurity are found in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Africa (regions with low development).

    Resource Inequality, Global Food Insecurity, StudySmarterFig. 1 - global food insecurity


    Similarly, water access is much greater in HICs; these countries often have a much higher water footprint than LICs. LICs are particularly vulnerable to economic water scarcity; water becomes unaffordable for certain populations, or methods to make it clean and safe to consume, are too expensive.

    The water footprint is the amount of water used either for direct consumption or through pollution for production and manufacturing for consumption.

    Water scarcity is the lack of access to safe water, as a result of climate or human action (lack of infrastructures to supply safe water).

    Economic water scarcity simply states that people are unable to afford water, or methods to make water safe to drink. Water may be available, but access is reduced.

    Physical water scarcity is a lack of water due to climatic reasons, such as reduced rainfall or drier environments.

    Take a look at the map below. Much of Africa (lower-income countries) is subject to economic water scarcity, compared to much of Europe or North America, for example. Physical water scarcity is seen in countries that are directly above the equator (due to climatic reasons), in areas such as Northern Africa or the Middle East (MENA region).

    Resource Inequality, Water Scarcity, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Global physical and economic water scarcity 2012


    Some people have good access to energy, which is reliable, resulting in an energy surplus. However, others suffer from energy insecurity, where they are in an energy deficit, and may be subject to unaffordable, unreliable or unstable energy supplies, or even none at all.

    Energy insecurity is caused when people do not have access to affordable (and reliable) energy sources.

    HICs tend to use much more energy than LICs, as the population in HICs tend to have greater access to technologies, and the standard of living is higher (the amount of goods or leisure that a person may have). Take a look at the map below. The highest energy consumption occurs in more developed regions, such as the United States, Australia, or Europe. Interestingly, Russia's energy usage is reasonably high; Russia is one of the BRICS countries, which are countries with growing economies.

    Resource Inequality, Energy Map, StudySmarterFig. 3 - global energy use 2019

    Resource Inequality causes

    As we have seen, global resource distribution is not equal around the world. Globally, people suffer from inequalities and insecurities in three major resources (food, water, and energy). Let's take a look at some causes of this resource inequality.


    Wealth is a culprit of resource inequality. HICs are wealthier and can therefore typically afford more foods. HICs also tend to import more foods from abroad, often from LICs, which limits the food supply available in LIC countries. LICs also struggle to afford to import foods themselves, therefore food supply in those countries is reduced. In instances where global food prices increase, LICs struggle to afford the increase in cost.

    Imports are products brought into one country from another.

    There are also many factors that affect food supply and production. These issues can show why there are global inequalities in food access. Take a look at the Impacts of Food Insecurity to read more on these factors.


    Wealth also impacts access to water. As we have previously mentioned, water can often be unaffordable. Methods to clean water supplies can also be costly. Even if the water is available, it may not be safe to consume. This results in economic water scarcity. However, in some cases, there is just not enough water available, often due to warmer or drier climates, resulting in physical water scarcity.

    There are also multiple other factors that influence whether water is available. Give the explanation on the Impact of Water Insecurity a read for these factors!

    Climate Change is only going to worsen physical water scarcity. Climate Change will increase the number of droughts that occur, limiting people's access to water supplies. Sea level rise will also be a result of warming climates, meaning that salt water will begin to merge with freshwater supplies as a result of flooding, making it undrinkable. The risk of acid rain will also increase, making water supplies unsafe to drink.


    You guessed it, wealth is another big factor when thinking about energy inequality. Generally, energy is pretty costly, as it is a valuable resource. It is typically expensive to import energy, and infrastructures used to generate and increase energy supply are often costly. This means that some people are unable to afford energy supplies. When energy prices increase, it becomes even more unaffordable.

    There are also multiple factors that can affect the supply of energy, which can impact whether people are energy secure or suffer from energy inequalities. Read the Impact of Energy Insecurity explanation for this!

    We can summarise the unequal distribution of resources in 3 main factors:

    1) The availability, access, and amount

    2) Wealth

    3) Infrastructure

    Try and remember these factors for your exam, and include the examples of food, water, and energy!

    Resource Inequality examples

    Case studies are vital for your exam. Using examples from different areas of the world can make your exam answers super detailed. Let's take a look at two examples of resource inequality; resource surplus and resource deficit.

    Resource surplus: United Kingdom

    For resource surplus, the UK is a great example. Read our explanations on UK Food Provision, UK Water Provision, or UK Energy Provision for more information on the UK as a case study!

    Resource deficit: Ethiopia

    Ethiopia, a country in eastern Africa, is a low-income country, with a population of roughly 120.7 million in 2022. Ethiopia suffers from water shortages, limited access to clean water for the population, and water-related diseases. Droughts have been a major cause of this. Political factors too have impacted water supply today; during Ethiopia's colonial history, the River Nile was shared between other surrounding countries. This has dramatically impacted farmers' access to water supplies today. In 2011, the Horn of Africa (including Ethiopia) suffered severe droughts, combined with conflict, leaving roughly 13 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia starving, with a lack of access to food. Continuing conflict and droughts are still causing problems today, affecting agricultural production as well as water access. Ethiopia has vast energy resources. However, they are not used efficiently. This means that roughly 70% of people in Ethiopia have no access to electricity sources.

    Resource Inequality, Horn of Africa, StudySmarterFig. 4 - the Horn of Africa

    Resource Inequality - Key takeaways

    • Resources, such as food, water, and energy, are not shared equally around the world.
    • Both the supply and consumption of resources are unequal, leaving some people in areas of surplus and security, and others in deficit and insecurity.
    • This inequality can be the result of differences in access, availability and amount, as well as levels of wealth and access to infrastructures.
    • Countries with resource surplus can be exampled by the UK, contrasted with Ethiopia, as a country in resource deficit.


    1. Fig. 1: Global food insecurity (,_OWID.svg) by Our World in Data ( License type: CC BY-3.0 (
    2. Fig. 3: Global energy use ( by Our World in Data ( License type: CC BY 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Resource Inequality

    What are the 3 different types of inequality?

    The three different types of inequality in resources are:

    • Food insecurity vs food security

    • Water insecurity vs water security
    • Energy insecurity vs energy security

    What are examples of economic inequality?

    Economic inequality can be exampled by reduced access to food supplies, clean water, and reliable energy sources. 

    What causes unequal distribution of resources?

    The unequal distribution of resources can be caused by levels of wealth, whether people have access to resources, or the amount of resources that are available. There are also multiple factors that affect supply and production, which can cause the unequal distribution of resources.

    What are the three main causes of inequality?

    The three main causes of inequality in resources are reduced access to food supplies, limited safe water, and lack of energy sources.

    What is resource inequality?

    Resource inequality is how resources are not shared equally around the world. Some people have plentiful and secure resource supplies, often in surplus, while others suffer from resource insecurities as a result of resource deficits. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: wealth difference is a large cause of resource inequality.

    True or false: climate change will make water more available.

    True or false: resources are distributed around the world evenly. 


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