Healthy People Healthy Planet

Across the Divide

Water in the West has long been a trigger for disputes. Witness Colorado River diversions in California and Arizona and struggles in Oregon’s Klamath basin. But cooperation is still the rule, according to research by master’s student Kristel Fesler and a team of OSU students in the Dept. of Geosciences.

In small Moroccan villages, tea and food accompany discussion. The topic here was water use. OSU water specialist Aaron Wolf (second from left) interviewed Hammou Magdoul (left), a farmer in Ameskar el-Fouqani, with help from his interpreter, Mohamed Zaki (right). (Photo courtesy of Aaron Wolf)

In the summer of 1997, Aaron Wolf and a Berber guide trekked up narrow mountain paths to a village high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Despite the steep terrain, they walked lightly. A donkey carried their gear. As they moved toward snowcapped peaks, they crossed one dry, rocky ridge after another. It took four days for them to reach the M’Goun Valley, elevation 7,000 feet. Their destination was two villages: Ameskar el-Fouqani (upper) and Ameskar al-Tahtani (lower), two communities of mud and stone buildings set among irrigated hillside terraces.

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Western water: from dispute to agreement

Water in the West has long been a trigger for disputes. Witness Colorado River diversions in California and Arizona and struggles in Oregon’s Klamath basin. But cooperation is still the rule, according to research by master’s student Kristel Fesler and a team of OSU students in the Dept. of Geosciences.

In a project funded by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, they have found that water-related events (newspaper reports) in the Colorado and Rio Grande basins more often reflect cooperation than conflict. In earlier research in Oregon, Fesler found that 65 percent of 384 water-related events between 1990 and 2004 were cooperative or neutral.

The strongest common thread among those involving conflict is government decisions such as new regulations. The lesson: agencies should foster productive, ongoing relationships with stakeholders and anticipate reactions to new regulations. A native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Fesler worked with OSU professors Julia Jones and Aaron Wolf.

The small spring-fed stream that flows through the villages is vital to the hundred or so families who live here. It serves their homes, powers a grain mill and waters crops and gardens. There is just enough water to meet their needs, but people have arranged to share the stream, doing in a microcosm what nations that divide rivers, lakes and groundwater aquifers do on a grand scale. It was a desire to learn about how a village manages competing demands — through rules that have ancient origins, predating 20th-century European colonization and the rise of an independent Moroccan government — that brought Wolf to this part of the world.

Arid communities with strong links to the past have useful lessons for a thirsty planet, believes Wolf, a water resources specialist and professor in the OSU Department of Geosciences. Traditional arrangements hold practical advice for countries with growing populations and increasing development pressures.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Peace, Wolf’s visits to the Berber villages and later to the Bedouin camps of Israel’s Negev Desert documented rules that have worked successfully for centuries. For example, arrangements to share water are often based on time instead of amount. (In one case, families set their irrigation schedules according to when a mountain shadow crosses a stream.) This principle equitably distributes the risk of low-flow conditions during drought years. More typical throughout the world, including the United States, is allocation by volume, which allows some water users to have priority, regardless of how much is available from year to year. In case of drought, other users must do with less or go without.

In Berber communities, water irrigation intakes may be built with stones but not with concrete, guaranteeing a flow of water to downstream users. Following Islamic law, people in both societies do not sell water. Access for drinking is a fundamental right, although making use of canals, pipes and other infrastructure may carry a price tag.

When disagreements occur, they are brought before a locally appointed judge. Enforcement can be swift, Wolf recalls being told. Asked about how long one party to a dispute had to agree to a judge’s decision, the judge replied by wetting his finger and holding it in the wind. “He said that if there was not agreement by the time his finger was dry, he would see to it that the man’s house would be burned to the ground,” Wolf says.

Politics and Databases

Wolf has built a career around assembling global water-related information and expertise, watershed by watershed. In his Ph.D. work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he focused on the Jordan River Basin in the Middle East, applying the theory of alternative dispute resolution to create a framework for decision-making. Water, he says, may be the single most important focus for continuing dialogue among Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and other groups.

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Water Research for Oregon

Umatilla basin groundwater, Upper Klamath Lake wetlands, Willamette River flow requirements, water quality in the Deschutes River basin — these are some of the subjects under study in OSU’s Institute for Water and Watersheds.

Under the leadership of Director Michael E. Campana, the IWW coordinates water-related teaching and research and applies OSU expertise to the water resources needs of Oregon citizens. More than 80 OSU faculty members in six OSU colleges conduct water-related research, supported by more than $11 million in annual grant funding.

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“If you just talk about the politics, you end up banging your head against the wall. There is no way to move. Every word has 5,000 years of meaning,” says Wolf. “But if you think about the things that are related to this (water), you can find other ways to talk. . . . In my dissertation I set out to capture how water had played a role in the Arab-Israeli conflict over time. And found much to my surprise, because it wasn’t in the literature, there is a rich, rich history of cooperation and dialogue.”

Despite the breakdown of the peace process, he says, multilateral discussions about water continue to this day. The issue is one of personal interest to Wolf who, as a dual Israeli-U.S. citizen, was drafted and served as a paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Forces from 1986 to 1988. That experience, described in his book, A Purity of Arms, instilled in him a deep desire for finding ways to resolve conflict through peaceful means.

In addition to the Jordan, he has worked with organizations to improve management on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, the Salween in Southeast Asia and southern Africa’s Okavango, the “jewel of the Kalahari.” Around the world, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Water development projects are key to social and economic progress, affecting agriculture, energy production, social relations and public health. Inadequate investment already has a staggering cost. The United Nations estimates that more than 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and that up to 5 million people, mostly children, die annually of water-related diseases. Some observers have suggested that water wars will haunt the future. “Water supplies are falling while the demand is dramatically growing,” warned Koichiro Matsuura, director general of UNESCO, in 2005.

While Wolf sees access to clean water as a formidable unmet challenge, he disagrees that water disputes will inevitably escalate into wars. It’s not that tension and conflict are absent from water management, he says. Rather, research by him and his students has found that cooperation over water — the kind of traditions exhibited by the Berbers and the Bedouins — is far more common than violence. In scouring historical records and cataloging modern decisions, they have found reference to only one “water war,” which occurred in the Tigris-Euphrates basin about 4,500 years ago. In the last 50 years, nations have signed 400 water-related treaties while 37 disputes involved violence, 27 of those between Israel and its neighbors.

In fact, their research suggests that, far from being an inducement to war, water management can be a pathway to peace. Cooperation over some of the world’s largest rivers — the Nile, the Mekong, the Indus — has succeeded in the face of ongoing hostilities and contributed to productive relationships that make violence less likely.

Building the basis for those relationships, however, is hard work. Wolf and his colleagues have made a start. At OSU, where he is affiliated with the Institute of Water and Watersheds (IWW), Wolf spearheaded creation of the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database (, an online library of agreements, case studies and events around the world. It includes maps showing the physical, social and economic circumstances that guide water-related decisions in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America. OSU faculty members in the Northwest Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering ( built the digital engine that drives the database.

To people struggling with water-related disputes, the database provides invaluable tools. “No matter where you work, people always think they are the only ones facing these issues. Water pollution, upstream/downstream relations, water rights. They’re so relieved just to hear that other people have tackled them,” Wolf says.

“There’s no blueprint for solving conflicts from one basin to another. There are best practices. We’ve done a pretty good job of assembling them. And there are lessons — trends — where basins evolve over time through stages.”

To help people apply those lessons and develop their own practices, Wolf helps to lead a group known as the Universities Partnership for Transboundary Waters. Currently, it includes experts from 14 universities on five continents. “People are grappling with these issues all over, and I want to see continued interaction between Oregon and the rest of the world. We have a lot to teach, and we’ve got some stuff to learn. I think it’s useful to foster a sense of community around this,” Wolf adds.

A recent example of such community-building endeavors focused on Africa. Together with colleagues at the African Water Issues Research Unit at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, Wolf produced an assessment of hydrologic risks and institutional abilities to address them in the continent’s 63 international river basins. The United Nations Environment Programme published their report in 2005, the first of five such continental-scale analyses.

That report has given a boost to people working on water resources management, says co-author Anthony Turton of the University of Pretoria. He credits Wolf with shifting the world’s attention from water as a source of conflict to one of cooperation, with particular relevance for Africa. “I am grateful that he (Wolf) gave Africa a voice,” says Turton. “His project allowed us to speak on behalf of Africa and present some facts with which to counter the prevailing ‘Afropessimism.’ For that, many Africans are grateful.”

“Hydropolitical Resilience”

Key to the ability of countries to cooperate over water problems is a concept that is central to research by Wolf and his colleagues — “hydropolitical resilience.” The term refers to the expertise and resources that organizations need to adapt to changing environmental and social conditions. Countries need both the technical know-how — engineers, scientists, experts in public health and natural resources policy — and ways to integrate the views of people whose lives are at stake — farmers, fishermen and business people. Among these parties, skilled facilitators play a crucial role by guiding negotiations that can be contentious.

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Water stress — a measure of water availability in relation to population density — is already severe in some parts of the world. In these maps of the Middle East produced by Nathan Eidem, a graduate student in the OSU Department of Geosciences, see how water stress varies across the region.

To meet these needs, Wolf and his colleagues are building on OSU’s legacy of expertise in water science and engineering. The Water Resources graduate program offers students science, engineering and policy tracks. And a new program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation includes a graduate-level professional certificate for people to be trained in the principles and practices of conflict resolution.

“When you ask people in the water field what skills they wish they had more of, (they point to) how you dialogue, how you listen, how you identify common interests. Technical people are very good in many places, but they need people who can run these processes more efficiently,” says Wolf. “I see us being a training ground for anyone working in water.”

He also sees Oregon’s water management experience as a model for others. “Our watershed councils are doing cutting-edge work in terms of local management and local participation. Power really is vested in the local community.” With funds from the U.S. Geological Survey and IWW, Wolf and OSU sociologist Denise Lach are documenting the successes of Oregon’s local councils in resolving conflicts.

Respecting local knowledge and values can make all the difference, he adds, in the midst of a competition for resources. “You see it a lot in native systems. There’s a balance of equity and honor. In a Bedouin land court, I heard a judge tell someone (who won a case), ‘You’re right, but he (his opponent) still needs a livelihood for his family. Can we think of a way to make sure he still has his minimum needs taken care of?’”

Water management, Wolf and his colleagues stress, is conflict management.

For more information about OSU’s international water research:

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.