Reductionist and integrative research approaches to complex water security policy challenges

Mark Zeitoun, Bruce Lankford, Tobias Krueger, Tim Forsyth, Richard Carter, Arjen Y. Hoekstra, Richard Taylor, Olli Varis, Frances Cleaver, Rutgerd Boelens, Larry Swatuk, David Tickner, Christopher A. Scott, Naho Mirumachi, Nathanial Matthews

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This article reviews and contrasts two approaches that water security researchers employ to advance understanding of the complexity of water-society policy challenges. A prevailing reductionist approach seeks to represent uncertainty through calculable risk, links national GDP tightly to hydro-climatological causes, and underplays diversity and politics in society. When adopted uncritically, this approach limits policy-makers to interventions that may reproduce inequalities, and that are too rigid to deal with future changes in society and climate. A second, more integrative, approach is found to address a range of uncertainties, explicitly recognise diversity in society and the environment, incorporate water resources that are less-easily controlled, and consider adaptive approaches to move beyond conventional supply-side prescriptions. The resultant policy recommendations are diverse, inclusive, and more likely to reach the marginalised in society, though they often encounter policy-uptake obstacles. The article concludes by defining a route towards more effective water security research and policy, which stresses analysis that matches the state of knowledge possessed, an expanded research agenda, and explicitly addresses inequities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)143–154
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Early online date2 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016


  • water security
  • environmental complexity
  • uncertainty
  • water conflicts
  • eco-sociological challenges

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