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Water Diplomacy

From Larry Susskind’s blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Managing the flow of water, as a river moves through several countries or across sub-state boundaries, can be extremely difficult. If the upstream riparians divert too much, the downstream countries are left empty-handed. If the upstream users don’t maintain water quality, the downstream users pay a terrible price. Part of the problem stems from the fact that water users are likely to have different priorities and plans. The upstream countries may want to dam the water to generate electricity, or divert it for agricultural purposes. Some may be confronted with rapid population growth or a burgeoning resource extraction industry that demand more water than they have used in the past. Climate change may alter patterns of rainfall, cause temporary drought, increase storm intensification, lead to sea level rise, or result in saltwater intrusion into freshwater system. All of these things will change the pattern of water availability and quality. So, there are societal forces (politics, economics and culture) and natural forces (water quantity, water quality and ecosystems) all of which have to be managed at the same time.

We think of these six elements and the way they are configured as interlocking networks. There are three things about these networks that many water system managers get wrong much of the time. First, they act as if these networks can be bounded or closed. That is, they formulate agreements or laws that prescribe who the users are, which elements will be included and excluded and what the boundaries will be. The fact is, water networks can and should not be circumscribed in this way. New users and uses may appear at any time. Distant ecological and economic forces may need to be taken into account. Water networks are open, not closed (which makes them much harder to manage). Even when treaties or laws specify who has the final say, other stakeholders will do what they need to do to insert themselves into the official decision-making process. Water rights or battles over control of water systems have been the cause of war for centuries. Second, water system managers (and the politicians to whom they report) may try to set operating rules aimed at managing a river segment in a way that makes sense on an average day, in an average year or when the system is at a stable or steady state. But water systems rarely, if ever, remain in a stable state. They are subject to all kinds of climatic, economic and demographic pushes and pulls. If the “rules of the game” (particularly the allocation rights of different users and uses) are set at one level, but the reality is something else all together, there will be serious conflicts. The rules of the game often need to be changed or at least adjusted. Unfortunately, many of the legal regimes in place all over the world are too rigid to accommodate such change. Third, most water system managers act as if water is a limited resource (even as they waste it!) and that decisions about who gets water and how it may be used are zero-sum decisions. But, that’s not always true. Sometimes water can be recycled or re-used a second time for a second purpose if the right kind of infrastructure is put in place and cooperative administrative arrangements are maintained. Shifting away from wasteful practices is the same as adding additional water supplies. The invention of new technologies or a shift to less wasteful practices can not only save water, but multiply its usefulness. So, water supplies are not actually limited and the smart management of water networks can create the equivalent of new supplies. The issue is how to move away from zero-sum confrontations to collaborative informal problem-solving that can create “water gains.”
Water networks have multiple nodes or dimensions. Some of these nodes are natural and some are made by people. Nodes may be located in a single place or be part of a far-reaching global (ecological, economic or institutional) network. Some nodes may have great cultural significance. Effective management of water networks requires negotiation among and on behalf of all these different nodes. Unfortunately, most water system managers do not have the skills in engineering design, environmental science, and negotiation to do this. Historically, the way most water professionals have been trained emphasizes only one or two of these disciplines or dimensions.

In June, my colleague Shafiqul Islam at Tufts University, and I will offer a one week, interdisciplinary train-the-trainer program called The Water Diplomacy Workshop (WDW). You can read more about it at Our goal is to build an international network of water professionals who share a commitment to a mutual gains approach to water network negotiation and who are ready and able to teach this approach to others. WDW meets in Boston from June 13, 2011 – June 17, 2011. If you are interested, you can apply on line.


Larry Susskind

Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973.  Professor Susskind joined the… MORE >

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