Avoiding Conflicts over Water Rights

With demand growing worldwide, the solution isn’t just technical, it’s political too, says engineering professor
A river in Jordan
“In the past, we have focused on the social side or the natural side of water, but we are saying in the book that they are coupled and continuously being spun by the politics of the time,” says Shaifqul Islam. In the photo, a river in the valley of Wadi A
October 26, 2012

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From farmers in California duking it out over water rights with growing urban populations to Middle Eastern countries squabbling over access to rivers and underground reservoirs, the need for water often leads to conflict.

Water-use issues are common—and likely to occur more frequently with population growth and climate change, says Shafiqul Islam, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts. What’s needed, he says, is not a technical solution for how to allocate water, but a negotiated one.

In a new book, Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks (Resources for the Future Press), Islam and co-author Lawrence Susskind of MIT argue that any resolution of water disputes needs to take into account the complex nature of the relationships of those clashing over the natural resource.

Water issues can be simple, complicated or complex, Islam says. A toilet, for example, is simple: combine a trip to Home Depot with some basic plumbing skills and you’re done. Pumping water from the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts 65 miles east to a 16th-floor apartment in Boston is complicated, but with some clever engineering, this too can be done. Creating the reservoir in the first place—that was complex. In the 1930s, the expanding population in the greater Boston area needed more water; so four towns were flooded and their residents displaced to create the Quabbin.

“Most difficulties in water negotiations are due to rigid assumptions about how water is allocated,” Shafiqul Islam says. “We’re saying, No, it’s not an allocation problem.” Photo: Kelvin MaPolicy and politics make water issues contentious. “In the past, we have focused on the social side or the natural side of water—we make regulations or build a dam—but we are saying in the book that they are coupled and continuously being spun by the politics of the time,” says Islam, who is also professor of water diplomacy at the Fletcher School. “You need to take all three—science, policy and politics—to create successful water networks.”

Though water rights are often contentious, Islam points to some successes. One is the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, between India and Pakistan—two countries bonded by conflict. “It is still one of the most well-respected and functional treaties,” Islam says. It has built-in mechanisms for dealing with conflicting points of view, and that is part of why it has succeeded; the parties knew differences were inevitable. “The negotiation process must create flexibility,” Islam says.

Another example of a successful operation is the CALFED program in California, through which 25 state and federal agencies collaborate to supply water to 25 million Californians. It illustrates what Islam and Susskind point to as a model of negotiation: focusing on the intersection of societal, political and natural resource issues.

“Most difficulties in water negotiations are due to rigid assumptions about how water is allocated,” Islam says. “We’re saying, No, it’s not an allocation problem. It is fundamentally a value problem that has to be decided by the stakeholders.” Water also needs to be thought of as a non-zero-sum game. In the water diplomacy framework that Islam and Susskind outline in their book, there shouldn’t be winners and losers.

People also need to understand the true sources and costs of water. For example, the average American uses about 100 gallons of water a day, according to Islam. “But in fact, we use 40 times more,” he says, when you take into consideration our consumption of “virtual water”—that used to produce our food. At about 1,000 gallons of water per pound of beef, for example, it makes a lot more sense to import beef from Argentina than to raise cattle in Arizona.

“Water is not a fixed resource; it is a flexible resource,” says Islam, who oversees a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant that funds a new doctoral program in water diplomacy at Tufts University. Granted, there is a fixed amount of water in the world—the same amount that’s been around since the time of the dinosaurs. But there is no scarcity of water. Instead, Islam says, “it is a distribution problem.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu