Evidence Resources

CEE Evidence Syntheses

What is the evidence that scarcity and shocks in freshwater resources can cause conflict instead of promoting collaboration in arid to subhumid hydroclimates? (systematic map)


1. Background
Anthropogenic activities such as the combustion of fossil fuels, land-use change and intensive agriculture are increasingly influencing the Earth‘s climate and exerting pressure on ecosystems. These changes have amplified the risk of scarcity and shocks (discrete and sudden events) in natural renewable resource (henceforth, NRR) scarcity across the spectrum of spatial scales.
The interplay between freshwater scarcity and conflict/collaboration is the most prominent and referenced of the environment-conflict issues in the Third and Fourth Assessment Reports of the IPCC. Discussions with the review user-group, confirmed that a systematic mapping of the literature in this particular field was a priority.
2. Objectives
To identify and systematically map all published and unpublished research to address the following primary question, ‗What is the evidence that scarcity and shocks in freshwater resources cause conflict instead of promoting collaboration?‘
The secondary objectives are to: Provide an overview of research activity in the area for different users of research such as practitioners, academics, policymakers, students and the public; Inform decisions on what future research might usefully address by identifying gaps in the literature; Improve access to knowledge by supporting identification of high quality study design; Provide a resource for future systematic reviews in the field.
3. Methods
A search strategy was employed to identify both academic and grey literature using general purpose electronic databases (e.g. Web of Knowledge), web searches, hand searching of key academic journals and consultation with content experts. Our survey of previous reviews was used to test the efficacy of the search strategy.
To be considered for inclusion in this study, a primary study had to match key concepts in the review question.
Relevant subject(s): human populations in arid, semiarid and dry subhumid hydroclimates. nations outside these climatic zones will be excluded. Global studies were also included.
Types of exposure: Any study where a measure of sudden (shocks) or long-term scarcity of freshwater resources is used as the explanatory variable. Studies that only consider freshwater quality were excluded. Both physical and social scarcity of freshwater resources were considered.
Types of outcome: Studies where a measure of human conflict or collaboration as the dependent variable at the micro level (within communities), micro-micro level (between communities), micro-macro (between communities and private/state institutions), and macro-macro (between states).
Types of study: To be included, a study had to be empirical and quantitative in nature, such as an observational, quantitative study analysing freshwater scarcity as an independent variable.
Language: Studies should be published in English.
Date: Studies should be published after 1990.
All reports that meet the inclusion criteria that were available were then coded using EPPI Reviewer 4. The coding was based on generic, methodological and review specific keywords.

Studies were ranked using an assessment framework developed from discussions with experts in the field, and based on their suggestions of the ideal study design for addressing the research question.
4. Main results
From a set of 589 studies identified after the first round of screening, we identified just 47 relevant studies. Of the 47 studies, 19 explored interstate interactions. Just one examined interstate conflict in relation to freshwater scarcity, while the remaining 18 were specifically related to transboundary river basins. At the intrastate level, 15 studies examined the relationship at the national level, while the remaining 13 explored interactions at the sub-national level.
The systematic map suggests research into the impact of freshwater scarcity and conflict/ collaboration is growing. This is true at all spatial scales examined, apart from state-state interactions that were not specifically related to transboundary river basins. However, there is little consensus on the impact of scarcity on social interactions at multiple spatial scales and this is true across the three scales examined (interstate, national-level, micro-level). This is because the research in this field is still at the formative stage, and is limited by data availability.
There is significant heterogeneity between studies. We find that divergent definitions of conflict/collaboration, scarcity, theoretical frameworks and additional explanatory variables are key reasons for variations between study outcomes. As such, we do not attempt to draw any conclusions regarding the direction of the relationship.
The systematic map identifies seven theoretical frameworks that define the literature. The neo-liberal, neo-Malthusian and common property management theoretical frameworks are most commonly used. But, it is only the neo-Malthusian theoretical framework has been adopted across all spatial scales. Neo-liberal and common property management are used at the interstate (transboundary river basins) and intracommunity levels respectively. Despite the popularity of the neo-Malthusian theoretical framework, the causal pathway posited by this theory not widely supported by the literature identified in this review.
At the intrastate level, no study considered the impact of scarcity on collaborative interactions. At the transboundary and micro-levels, however, the distribution between collaborative and conflictive interactions was much more balanced. However, studies at all spatial scales considered rarely examined multiple outcomes in the same analyses. Instead, binary variables such as treaty/no treaty or conflict/ no conflict are most commonly employed.
It is only at the micro-level (i.e. intercommunity, intracommunity interactions) that multiple dimensions of the collaboration-conflict spectrum are explored. Here, multiple indicators of collaboration are observed and analysed such as sharing, participation in local institutions or compliance with local institutional rules.
5. Conclusions
Implications for policy
There are a number of reasons why, despite the increase in studies in recent years, there is, as yet, no clear sign of consensus on the expected societal responses to freshwater scarcity. The heterogeneity of study design is one key reason. This review has shown that studies vary significantly in research question, theoretical frameworks employed, definitions of conflict or collaboration and scarcity, and spatial scale. Furthermore, freshwater scarcity is rarely considered to be the sole driver of conflictive or collaborative interactions between two or more parties. Instead it is regarded as one of many factors that influence social dynamics.
While the quantitative research included in this review may appear to be at odds with the dire predictions cited in early empirical case studies, we caution such conclusions from being drawn from the evidence presented here; particularly when policy makers and researchers seek to identify the implications of this review. The small number studies identified and theheterogeneity between them means we are not in a position to confirm or refute this position. Furthermore, few studies identified were considered weighted as ‗very high‘ (n=7) or ‗high‘ (n=6) in our assessment of methodological approach and reporting.
Observed and predicted trends in global environmental change, and particularly climate change, means there is an urgent need to develop understanding of the multiple conditions of possibility under which conflict and cooperation emerge when societies are exposed to environmental stress. The huge economic and social costs of violent conflict, means a systematic and coordinated research programme in this field would be worth the investment.
Implications for research
Understanding how and why conflict or collaboration emerge under conditions of scarcity are a critical research questions. However, this review suggests that the field is still formative. This review has identified a number of gaps in the literature and future research priorities. These include: A coordinated research strategy of both small-N and large-N studies Theory building: the development of new or refined theories. Monitoring and datasets, dependent variables: The continuum from harmony to conflict is multidimensional, and therefore requires a broader monitoring and systematic reporting of different forms of social interactions Monitoring and datasets, independent variables: More widespread, comprehensive and geo-referenced data for control and interactive terms may make a significant contribution to the robustness of future studies. Consideration of groundwater aquifers: one study reported a growth in claims over groundwater aquifers; however, we did not identify any study that specifically addressed groundwater aquifers and conflict or collaboration. This highlights a significant gap in the research Continued research into the differentiation between progressive and acute scarcity. Additional exploratory variables: There is a need for more research into additional social, economic, political, geographical and historical explanatory variables. Continued focus on methodologies that use spatially disaggregated and geo-referenced data: The state-centric approach has the potential to overestimate the risk of conflict. An increase in micro-level research: research at this level offers the opportunity to examine the importance of the cultural and historical context. Geographical diversity: The review has demonstrated there is a strong geographical bias in the literature. The majority of studies identified at the national level or below were conducted in African states, and in particular SSA Interdisciplinary approaches: Future research could benefit from working closely with researchers from other disciplines. Future systematic reviews: Systematic reviews are evolving processes. As such we welcome continuation of this work that draw on non-English language studies. Building on this review, further mapping of studies that explore other NRRs is recommended.

Who's in the review team?

Victoria Johnson
Rita Floyd
Ian Fitzpatrick
Leroy White

At what stage is the review?


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