• Working Paper


    Nazia Hussain, Project Assistant Professor, Institute for Future Initiatives

Scarcity and Contention in Cities in the Global South: Evidence from Karachi and Manila

As more people move to cities, they do so at a time when concerns of resource scarcity, especially of water, abound. By 2050, at least 6 out of 10 people will be living in cities (UN-ESA 2014), increasing the demand for water by 50-70 percent (Lundqvist, Appasamy & Nelliyat 2003). Although these concerns are not new, they have gained an urgency in a time of environmental stresses and water crises; one fourth of cities in the world already face water shortages (McDonald et al. 2014). For some cities in the Global South where criminal and political violence and service provision through multiple players shapes daily experiences, these questions become doubly important. How will depleting water interact with dynamics of governance and politics? Will it lead to political instability, or worse, conflict?

Seemingly straightforward, these questions cut across thematic boundaries.

Firstly, within urban contexts where armed criminal and political players have a history of employing violence as a regulatory mechanism, attributing conflict to resource scarcity alone is a challenging enterprise. On the other hand, unrest in the form of organized protests by social and political groups, residents expressing outrage as they experience limited water availability, or competition over political and economic resources including access to water among political players, merit equal attention. In some instances, these phenomena may be the intervening stages before a city experiences political instability.

Secondly, scarcity of resources (water, in this case) needs to be analyzed in light of preexisting structural inequities in a society. Not dismissing the very real danger of climate-induced scarcity driving societies into contention, inequitable distribution of water in a society may mimic conditions produced by resource scarcity, thereby making it difficult for scholars to untangle the “real” cause of unrest. Scarcity, then, is not only about places running out of water but a complex phenomenon in itself that contains seeds of a city’s history of social and power structures, governance, and socio-ecological processes.

Thirdly, this paper contends that the problem of environmental stresses and resource scarcity needs to be studied within the backdrop of a state’s ability (or, lack of it thereof) to provide services to its residents. Particularly, the dysfunction associated with failure of some places to correspond to ideal types of governance ought to be revisited. This may create space for ground realities—in many cities, multiple players, connected with state actors at varying levels, are engaged in service provision. Water supply, then, is not always within the domain of formal governments. These players and practices do not exist in isolation nor are they peripheral to a system—being associated with local political players, government officials, civil society organizations and local communities. How service provision, especially to poor populations, and relationships among these dynamics interact with depleting water resources

This research paper was prepared for presentation at the American Political Science Association Convention, August 29- September 1, 2019 Washington, D.C.

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