Water Allocation, a Potential Source of Conflict, Can Promote Peace

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With a limited supply of water available to serve the needs of an expanding global population, controversy and disputes over water supplies can be expected. The question often raised, however, is how the issues will be resolved, whether peacefully or through armed conflict and war.

Some observers have feared the worst. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General and Nobel laureate said, “Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict." It has oft been said that in the near future, as water trumps oil as a scarce resource, armed conflict is likely.

It was noted several times that water, who gets it and who uses it, although a potential source of conflict, also can be an opportunity for people and nations to cooperate and work together for peace. Even warring nations can cooperate when it comes to water. For example, the 1960 Indus Basin Tready is a water settlement reached despite hostilities between participating nations. The treaty determines India's and Pakistan's sharing of the Indus and its tributaries and has held up despite military clashes between the two nations. With water raising such high stakes, cooperation is likely to be the most effective strategy for allocating this scarce resource to ensure a lasting accord among diverse interests. This was AzIP's guiding premise.

Workshop participant Aaron Wolf, professor in the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University, has studied water disputes, their causes and resolution. He says that complicating the resolution of water disputes is the fact that water is defined by natural and human boundaries.

He says, “Water people tend to take the natural or watershed view, observing the workings of a river system, its capture and flow of wa ter over a large area of land. This brings people together. Political people, on the other hand, consider boundaries, lines that separate and divide people and states. These sets of bounaries define the areas of interest for international water management.”

He asks a critical question: “How do we work within a watershed context where everything is connected to everything else and still honor and do justice to the real sovereignty and political issues that boundaries represent?” He says this is the situation in Arizona, in the Middle East and all over the world.

Wolf says there are 263 international basins in the world, covering about half the land surface of the earth. He says tension prevails in some of these but , “In many of the areas where you have tensions you find people sharing water resources as well."

Wolf says, " When people interact over water, two-thirds of  the time it is to cooperate. Among water people we know this is the rule. Among some journalists and others who want to talk about water wars the evidence is against them, at least the historic evidence.”

Wolf describes a turning point in negotiations when cooperation becomes the likely strategy. “People generally walk into a negotiation setting talking about their rights. ... I deserve the water because I am upstream; And that almost never gets ratified in an agreement...One of the first switches is going from rights to  needs. OK you may be upstream but how much water do you actually need? That is an important switch. ... The latest buzz word is an 'equitavle distribution of benefits'."

The AzIP workshop brought Arizona, Israeli and Palestinian scholars and water managers together to map out pathways to by-pass conflict and lead to the equitable and collaborative distribution of water.