Resource scarcity and environment: Review of evidence and research gap analysis

This report presents the results of a rapid, desk-based review of research published since 2008


This report presents the results of a rapid, desk-based review of current and recently concluded (since 2008) research into resource scarcity and its effects on the environment, environmental resources, growth and poverty in developing countries, together with an assessment of research and evidence gaps in the same area. The study focused primarily on peer-reviewed literature, although other major and influential works were also considered. The geographical scope was Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia with specific reference to DFID-focus countries in each continent and region (excluding South Africa and India), although studies relating to other locations have been considered if they provide information transferrable to other contexts.

The main findings of this review are:

  • The issue of natural resource scarcity has received considerable attention at the global scale, and it is an increasingly prominent issue on global agendas. Many studies consider resource scarcity at the global scale (often using surrogate measures such as commodity prices as reflective of scarcity). On the other hand, there is a comparatively rich literature of resource scarcity studies for particular locations, and some detailed studies of the resource scarcity context for particular countries (such as Ethiopia). In between these two scales there is a comparative paucity of research and it is not clear how the global-scale studies and the myriad local-scale studies connect to form a coherent body of study, if indeed they do. Further research might valuably explore the conceptual space between global- and local-scale dimensions of resource scarcity to determine if this issue can be approached in a more integrated manner across geographical scales.
  • There is an accumulation of evidence to suggest that resource scarcity and poverty are closely related, although the precise nature of that relationship is both contested and vague. In particular, there is limited clarity on the exact linkages involved between resource scarcity, poverty and poverty reduction, and further research might valuably clarify those linkages. Some studies have acknowledged that the issues are more complex than simply ‘resource scarcity causes poverty’; some work has acknowledged that ‘poverty causes resource scarcity’; yet relatively few studies have investigated exactly how and why these links occur. Where researchers have probed these areas in greater detail, they reach the almost unanimous conclusion that resource scarcity is a political (economy) issue that is much more about distributive issues and access to resources than it is about absolute resource shortages. Moreover, those studies tend to reach the (related) conclusion that improved resource efficiency – perhaps in conjunction with improved demand management – is likely to form part of an appropriate response to resource scarcity issues.
  • Resource scarcity issues are increasingly viewed as some form of ‘nexus’, given their complexity and tight interconnections, and indeed it is difficult to isolate resource scarcity issues in the current and recent research literature. However, again, there is a lack of precision in defining the nature of that nexus, and various different types of nexus have been considered by researchers. On the one hand, the research literature suggests that almost any environmental issues – and many economic and social ones, too – might reasonably be included in the nexus of issues linked to research scarcity. On the other hand, some issues are clearly more prominent – and seem to have greater explanatory power – than others in understanding what drives resource scarcity. Further research might prioritise and clarify the question of which factors matter most in driving – and in explaining – resource scarcity.
  • In particular, the issue of climate change pervades the current and recent literature on resource scarcity and very few of the studies reviewed failed to consider climate change as an issue. However, it is difficult to find evidence of research that probes below the simple observation that climate change is likely to exacerbate resource scarcity issues, through a wide range of direct and indirect effects. Again, whilst climate change conceivably affects every aspect of resource scarcity, some of the effects of climate change are likely to be more important than others in explaining resource scarcity. Therefore, further research might provide valuable focus on clarifying the precise mechanisms by which climate change, resource scarcity and poverty interact.
  • Water scarcity is a very prominent issue in the current and recent literature on resource scarcity and poverty, and this area may be reasonably well characterised, although this is also an area in which resource scarcity issues are particularly acute and are projected to become yet more critical in future.
  • Resource scarcity is acknowledged to be an important potential driver of conflict – and to become more so with climate change, population growth and economic growth – yet there is debate about the particular factors that most strongly promote conflict, and this is a potential area in which further research might yield valuable insights.
  • Overall, the literature of resource scarcity, environment and poverty is highly patchy, both in terms of topic, and geographically. In terms of topic, very limited material specifically on urban themes, industrial processes, metal resources, minerals and fossil fuels was found for developing countries for the period since 2008 (although some of these themes are covered in studies relating to security, and some material relating to developed-country issues has been published). Nevertheless, these are important issues that require adequate understanding and it is possible that original research could be focused on these topics. In terms of geographical coverage, again, studies specifically considering DFID-focus countries were relatively sparse and further work could be undertaken for these countries.

The following areas were identified as possible areas in which new research could potentially be of value to DFID:

  • Original studies of the precise links between resource scarcity and poverty in DFID-focus countries, focusing on those factors with greatest explanatory power.
  • Original studies of the drivers and impacts of renewable resource scarcity in DFID-focus countries, focusing on the precise connections between resource scarcity and poverty.
  • Original investigations of the specific ways in which climate change, resource scarcity and poverty interact in particular locations (in DFID-focus countries).


Daley, B. Resource scarcity and environment: Review of evidence and research gap analysis. Evidence on Demand, UK (2013) 26 pp. [DOI:]

Resource scarcity and environment: Review of evidence and research gap analysis

Published 1 January 2013