Water Wars or Something Better: Can Water Bring Peace?

A finnish lake at midnight photo

Image credit: Marjukka Grover
Because Water is so Vital, Even Enemies Can Find Common Ground
There's no doubt that as our climate gets weirder, the world will increasingly face a severe water crisis. Given the fact that we absolutely cannot live without water, it's perhaps understandable that we all get a little panicky - see, for example, the discussion over in our forums about whether global warming could lead to war, or check out Jaymi's post on water wars erupting in India. But flicking through the ever thought-provoking UTNE Reader this month, I was presented with a more hopeful vision - an Oregon State University professor and experienced water mediator who believes that water is so fundamental to life that it can actually bring enemies together.
And this is no high-minded theorist - the article, originally published in Miller-Mccune, covers Aaron Wolf's global work on water mediation.

Wolf has successfully played a part in creating co-operation over water between Palestinians and Israelis as part of the Madrid peace efforts in the early nineties. While the peace talks in general lead to failure, the collaborative water projects were considered so vital that they continued even during the height of violence. Those responsible for the initiative on both sides even took out joint advertising during the second intifada, asking all parties to avoid damage to water infrastructure. Similarly, Wolf notes, India and Pakistan have a water treaty that has survived since the Sixties - through two wars. In the middle of one war, India even made payments to Pakistan as part of its treaty obligations.

But is it simply a sense of pragmatism that leads enemies to talk over water - it's so important, and neither side can do without it, that it is outside the realm of ordinary conflict? Possibly - but Wolf seems to think there is more to it than that. Water is such a common bond that it can help us transcend our usual differences and see each others as human beings. Clearly a spiritual man, Wolf has even tailored his negotiation methods to encourage such transcendence - asking each party to share their personal memories and relationship with the body of water under dispute, and using a series of maps of such water bodies - both with and without the man-made political boundaries shown.

I don't think Wolf is suggesting that water is immune as a cause of political or sectarian violence - quite the opposite. But he is suggesting that when violence or tension occurs, there's more potential common ground than with, say, oil or diamonds. And it makes sense to use that common ground to forge human understanding and relationships. In an age of dire predictions and pessimism when it comes to future resource conflicts, it's great to hear a man with the experience of Wolf offering a more hopeful vision:

Water hits us at a profoundly different level than other resources. People are willing to do horrible things to each other. What they seem not willing to do is turn off each other's water.

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