Water Diplomacy: The Role of Science in Water Diplomacy

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In part 3 of a 5 part series on Water Diplomacy, Program on Negotiation faculty member Lawrence Susskind and his colleague Shafiqul Islam present their research with regard to water diplomacy in the Middle East.

Scientific and technical knowledge is important in water negotiations, but not in the ways it has often been used. It is counterproductive to use scientific information to justify arbitrary (political) decisions. For example, scientific information about water has increased dramatically over the last several decades, but our ability to manage water resources has not improved proportionately.

There is a difference between knowledge of water as an innate object and knowledge of water as a multifaceted resource. For example, our understanding of the atmospheric and hydrologic processes related to water (as an object) has significantly improved; yet, thousands of people die and billions of dollars are lost every year because of our inability to fully anticipate when floods and droughts will occur.

Simply connecting experts, creating more scientific knowledge, developing more formidable modeling capabilities, and sharing data is not enough to improve water management. We need more effective ways of creating actionable knowledge that is trustworthy, is easily communicated, and will be used by all sides to enhance policy and program implementation.

Again, for scientific or technical information to be trusted and used, it must be generated collaboratively. Scientific findings related to water usually hinge, in part, on nonobjective and value-laden judgments such as what to measure, how to value competing uses (e.g., conservation versus agriculture), how to scope a study (e.g., what geographic and time horizons to use). what indicators and models to employ, and what to do about missing data. Judgments like these need to be transparent and should be made in consultation with those who will be affected by the results.

Scientific or technical analyses can help lead to the creation of value, but only when they are perceived as mutually beneficial. Uri Shamir, an Israeli negotiator who worked on the 1994 water agreement, noted that: “The joint work in the field (measuring stream flows and planning projects) remained a major confidence building measure (CBM) during the years of the negotiation process. The veracity and accuracy of the data provided by one party was continuously examined and often questioned by the other, but this did not undermine the basic mutual trust between them.”

Trust in the process of collecting data and creating knowledge is especially important when parties are generating creative options aimed at increasing value. While it may be helpful to have a skilled facilitator in water negotiations at every scale, in cases where technical issues are being negotiated it is essential to have a facilitator with a substantial scientific and technical background.

With such assistance, the parties can create value by identifying changes in practice  or policy that will be mutually beneficial. For example, changing the price of water can alter demand, which in turn can increase short-term supply.

Similarly, identifying new technologies (and their costs and benefits) can change the dynamics of overall supply and demand in a basin. Thus, it is important to bring scientific knowledge and ideas into all water negotiations, but not merely to justify decisions that have already been made by one side. Rather, trusted scientific output should be used during the “inventing” stage when stakeholders can use reliable information to formulate creative trades collaboratively.


When you download the New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation you will learn how wise negotiators extract unexpected value using an indirect approach to conflict management.


Related Articles: Water Diplomacy pt. 1, Water Diplomacy pt. 2

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