Do resource scarcity and climate change cause violent conflict?

That’s the question I tackle in a background paper prepared for next year’s World Development Report, which the World Bank has just published (pdf) on its website.

So what’s the answer? In a nutshell, that although climate change and scarcity do indeed pose real conflict risks (especially in fragile states), the relationship is more complicated than you might think from all the media stories about ‘water wars‘ and the like. 

In reality, after all, it’s hardly ever possible to separate climate or scarcity impacts from wider political, economic and social drivers. As the Norwegian Refugee Council note, for instance, the problem with the idea of ‘climate refugees’ is that it “implies a mono-causality that one rarely finds in human reality”.

So it is with conflict, most of the time: it’s just not possible to separate land, water, food, energy and so on from the wider political economy context. (As one of the authors I came across put it, “it is difficult to imagine how conflict in any developing country could not involve renewable resources … developing country elites fight over renewable resources for the same reason that Willy Sutton robbed banks: that’s where the money is”.) On a related note, the paper argues that

A political economy-based approach to understanding scarcity also underscores the importance of the point that scarcity should not be viewed in isolation from the contextual factors that make an individual, community or society vulnerable – or resilient – to its effects.  While disputes over the ownership, consumption, distribution or governance of scarce resources can increase the risk of violent conflict, the key to reducing the risk of such conflicts may have less to do with access to the resources per se than to the livelihoods that they enable.  Creating alternative livelihoods not reliant on these resources, or improving access to social protection systems and safety nets, may therefore be equally viable approaches to achieving the same end. 

Bottom line? Yes, resource scarcity and climate change will increase the risk of conflict – but more often as a threat mutiplier than as stand-alone drivers of conflict. And that means donors and developing country governments alike will have to think much harder about resilience across the board – and especially about questions of the effectiveness and legitimacy of natural resource governance regimes.