Water Diplomacy

Given water’s centrality to our lives, and frequent scarcity, it is unsurprising that it is at the root of conflicts at all scales, ranging from local land-use disagreements to international boundary disputes. Scientific data and technical innovation are often presented as means for resolving disputes, yet achieve little when not mediated through processes that account for the contextual realities water is managed in, including competing interests, differing norms and expectations, and politics and power.

Water can only be effectively managed when environmental, social and political factors are concurrently taken into account. Our Water Diplomacy approach, which is being developed in partnership with the Water Diplomacy Program at Tufts University, bridges the divide between science and politics. We are developing new means for bringing science and data to stakeholders in fora in which their interests are recognized and opportunities are provided for joint learning and creative problem solving.

The key insights and actions we promote with our Water Diplomacy approach are outlined in the diagram below. We start with some key assumptions, including that water networks are: Inherently complex; open and continuously changing; uncertain and non-linear; and best managed using a non-zero sum approach to negotiation. We theorize that water networks need to be characterized properly, including distinguishing between different types of networks and different places along scales of certainty-uncertainty and agreement-disagreement. We also assert that it is important to recognize the interconnectedness between the natural, social and political systems involved in any water dispute, and what it means to operate in the Zone of Complexity. These assumptions and theories lead us to a set of best practices we recommend for the effective management of water networks, including: The need for different approaches in different contexts; the importance of stakeholder involvement; the value of tools like scenario planning; the ability to create opportunities via value creation; the importance of effective joint-problem solving and consensus-seeking; and the necessity of adaptive management and organizational learning, given the uncertainty and change in most water networks.