Neo-Malthusianism vs. resource optimism – a social capital approach
A Kosovac
Publication Date (Web): 19 May 2016
DOI: https://doi.org/10.21139/wej.2016.024

Water scarcity is an increasingly important issue in a world of changing climate and neo-Malthusians argue that it will lead to increased conflict between states. Resource optimists, who view water as far too important to fight over, refute the neo-Malthusian viewpoint and argue that people will always find alternative solutions before conflict occurs.

Much of the research in the field shows that interstate war over water resources alone is extremely unlikely and that there has, in fact, been no known war between two states over water alone. However, this does not preclude water resource issues from exacerbating other existing tensions between the states. The fascinating aspect of this research shows that water resources can aggravate existing issues or, conversely, can act as a tool to encourage cooperation between states.

In order to explore why this is the case, this theory utilises social capital as the explanatory tool when determining whether water issues will act as an aggravating or cooperating factor in existing tension. Social capital theory is a way of describing decision-making using concepts such as social networks, norms of reciprocity and, also, trustworthiness.


Social capital is a public good and, as such, does not just assist those who have directly invested in the concept – it benefits the wider community as a whole. By investing trust in social relationships we inherently place value in their wellbeing and escape pure self-interest. This eases cooperation and collaboration, reducing tensions that could lead to conflict.

If there is ample social capital between the states, the exacerbating factor of water issues is significantly decreased. This is true in the case of Israel and Jordan. During a period of declining water resources, the high level of social capital between states enabled the establishment of a clear dispute management process, which aided in averting violent confrontation.

Examples of strong social capital came through in the negotiations between the states, the agreements set up in the 1990s, and general reciprocal behaviour that served to foster a cooperative relationship. Rather than water resources being used as fodder in existing tensions between the states (of which there are many), it was instead used as a tool of cooperation. In an in-depth analysis of the formal and informal relationship between Israeli and Jordanian policymakers, it is clear that there was ample social capital in place. This was shown through open and transparent information sharing, establishment of norms and collective decision-making through a joint water institution. Not only was this a factor between the policymakers, but also on the ground with projects such as ‘Good Water Neighbours’.

The research of social capital has previously been utilised by Elinor Ostrom on collective action schemes on water in Asia, while Serageldin and Grootaert showed that social capital was what curbed violence over joint forest management in the state of Gujarat in India.

This research differs from the aforementioned, as it deals with relations between states, rather than between communities. As such, it presents a good example of how developing elements of soft skills as well as establishing trust-building frameworks can serve to foster an environment of cooperation, rather than conflict.

Anna Kosovac is a Civil Engineer at Yarra Valley Water in Melbourne.

Click here to read the full paper