Using a Series of Linked Games to Teach a Mutual-Gains Approach to Water Negotiations

By — on / Pedagogy at PON

Multi-issue, multi-party negotiations over the allocation of boundary-crossing water resources are increasingly important almost everywhere in the world. Existing role-play simulations are helpful in conveying practical wisdom about such negotiations, but most games only deal with one issue or one aspect of negotiation at a time.

Underrepresented in our teaching materials are ‘linked games’ that cover several rounds of negotiations or negotiations that take place at several levels simultaneously. The new Indopotamia Game, developed as part of the Water Diplomacy Workshop ( offers four interlinked game segments that can be played independently or in sequence.[1] These are appropriate for mid-career water professionals or graduate students studying engineering, law, science, environmental planning or public policy.

 Water Diplomacy 2

Indopotamia is a nine-party, mediated, multi-issue negotiation game involving a dispute over the allocation of land and water resources shared by three countries in an international river basin. The four segments of the game deal with:

 1. Understanding interests and building coalitions,

 2. Information sharing and knowledge generation,

 3. Option generation, and

 4. Deal-making.

The Game

Eight stakeholder group representatives, including senior officials from three countries (Alpha, Beta, and Gamma), have gathered to discuss, with the help of a mediator, possible development strategies for the Indopotamia River Basin. The three countries face significant water-management challenges, and there is no formal agreement governing how they are supposed to share or use their common resources. A multinational Regional Development Bank has brought the countries together and is prepared to offer substantial financial support if they, and some non-governmental interest groups as well, can come to an agreement. There can be many groups of nine (all in the same class or training event) playing the game at the same time in separate rooms.

The Water Diplomacy Framework

The game introduces water professionals and aspiring water professionals to the Water Diplomacy Framework (WDF). This is a new approach to water management that builds on three critical propositions. First,boundaries and representation in water networks should be considered open-ended and continuously changing. Second, long-term water management must take account of substantial uncertainty. Third, the politics of trans-boundary water management need to be negotiated in an adaptive and non-zero-sum fashion. The participants learn to take account of these propositions as they deal with each segment of the Indopotamia negotiations. The forthcoming book of Islam, Susskind and Associates (Resources for the Future, 2012) will also provide a theoretical underpinning about the Water Diplomacy Framework for those who want to use the linked games to teach about it.[2]

The Experience

Experienced negotiation professionals who have used the linked games say that the experience encouraged them to think about trying new approaches to water negotiations in their own practice. Participants in the 2010 Water Diplomacy Workshop (which included senior water professionals from 17 countries) found each segment to be particularly helpful in dealing with a specific challenge. One water-official said, “What I’ve learned is adaptable to my regional situation and my conflicts.”

Main Lessons

One of the most critical lessons of the games is that participants can in a simulation context carry over the aftermath of coalitional strategies from segment to segment. A coalition established in the first segment can be instrumental in finding mutually advantageous solutions in later segments of the game on subsequent days.

The first segment focuses on political dynamics in cross-border water management negotiations. It gives the nine-parties an opportunity toexplore the rather different interests of each of the stakeholders involved in the river basin. The structure of the opening exercise presses the players to emphasize the importance of pursuing the interests of others as they design their negotiation strategies.

Segment two explores the dynamics of information sharing, particularly scientific information. It urges a value-creating approach to water negotiation that highlights the benefit of sharing rather than withholding information. It encourages the parties to switch from being adversaries to becoming collaborative problem-solvers. It also demonstrates how contingent agreements may hold the key to dealing with technical uncertainty and scientific disagreements.

The third segment explores the problem of generating value-creation options in a multi-party context. The importance of linkages between options, along with the gains and losses associated with threats and promises, are examined. There is a chance for the participants to invent ingenious ways of stretching resources or using the same resources in a number of different ways so that the interests of all parties can be met.

Segment four addresses how groups can negotiate future relationships and on-going governance arrangements. The comparison of outcomes at different “tables” is instructive. Typically, some groups reach agreement while others do not.


The linked games provide an opportunity to come closer to the complexities of multi-party, multi-state negotiations in a water management context. A key objective of this exercise is to highlight the value of using facilitation or mediation in such situations. Solving water disputes and conflicts requires a combination of both scientific knowledge and political awareness. The linked negotiation gives parties the real life experience of negotiations cycling through different stages that each require adaptations of various kinds to move on to the next phase. It illustrates the importance of coalition building, and the need to find solutions that bring benefit to all in order to find lasting agreements. The scientific complexities of the issues and the need to follow a structured process demonstrate that professional guidance from trained facilitators can be of great value in managing complex water negotiations.

[1]Catherine M. Ashcraft has developed the game under the supervision of Professors Lawrence Susskind and Shafiqul Islam. The games can be ordered from the PON Clearinghouse (

[2] Islam, S.; Susskind, L. and Associates, “Water diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks, Resources for the Future, forthcoming. The book challenges many prevailing beliefs about water management. For example, the authors argue that water is a flexible, not a scarce resource. They spell out how and why a negotiated approach — guided by insights from complexity theory — will produce fairer, more efficient, more stable and wiser management results.

Written for NP@PON by Paola Cecchi Dimeglio & Peter Kamminga .

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