2nd UF Water Institute Symposium Abstract

Submitter's Name Aaron Wolf
Session Name Plenary Session
Category Opening Plenary Session
Author(s) Aaron T. Wolf,  Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University
  Shared Waters: Conflict and Cooperation
  Water is an eloquent advocate for reason. Admiral Lewis Strauss.

Water management is, by definition, conflict management: Water, unlike other scarce, consumable resources, is used to fuel all facets of society, from biologies to economies to aesthetics and spiritual practice. Moreover, it fluctuates wildly in space and time, its management is usually fragmented, and it is often subject to vague, arcane, and/or contradictory legal principles. As such, there is no such thing as managing water for a single purpose – all water management is multi-objective and based on navigating competing interests. Within a nation these interests include domestic users, agriculturalists, hydropower generators, recreators, and environmentalists – any two of which are regularly at odds, and the complexity of finding mutually acceptable solutions increases exponentially as more stakeholders are involved. Add international boundaries, and the difficulty grows substantially yet again.

While press reports of international waters often focus on conflict, what has been more encouraging is that, throughout the world, water also induces cooperation, even in particularly hostile basins, and even as disputes rage over other issues. This has been true from the Jordan (Arabs and Israelis) to the Indus (Indians and Pakistanis) to the Kura-Araks (Georgians, Armenians, and Azeris). Despite research that finds repeatedly and empirically that water-related cooperation overwhelms conflict over the last fifty years (see, most recently, Wolf et al. 2003), prevailing theories fail to explain this phenomenon. Certainly, there is a long history of conflicts over, or related to, shared freshwater resources. But there is also a long, and in many ways deeper, history of water-related cooperation. Why do countries that share a basin cooperate on water, even when they will not cooperate over other issues? Here is a resource on which we all depend, which fluctuates wildly in space and time, and for which there is little guidance in international law. By any quantitative measure, water should be the most conflictive of resources, not an elixir that drives enemies to craft functioning and resilient institutional arrangements.

This presentation will discuss conflict and cooperation over shared water resources internationally, in the US West, and end with lessons learned for the ACT and ACF basins.