Water Conflict and Cooperation/Means and Tools

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This article is based on Water security and peace - A synthesis of studies prepared under the PCCP-Water for Peace process, compiled by William J. Cosgrove, as part of a UNESCO-IHP, PCCP Series Publication (2003).

Values, Processes, and Institutions

While the terms are often used synonymously, institutions differ from organizations. Institutions are routine and stable patterns of behavior over time. They are formed and driven by values, which over time often become implicit and unexamined assumptions embodied in a variety of organizations. Changing values held by clients of these traditional institutions and by influential external institutions challenge the values underlying traditional water institutions. The litany of Impact Assessment “add-ons” to traditional water management policy such as Environmental and Social Impact Statements (EIS, SIA), and Risk Assessment (RA) are testimony to the growing concern that traditional water institutions are somehow not including a complete enough picture of values at stake. The broadened array of approaches to flood management illustrates this trend.

Moving people from flood plains or providing insurance after modifications to structures bring in different interests and values. Reorganization alone is insufficient to provide better management of water resources. Not only the positions advocated, but also the data used by new and old institutions are driven by values (or assumptions about the way that the world ought to be). The processes and tools described in the remaining sections of this chapter recognize that the values and interests of stakeholders must be taken into account in evolving institutional frameworks.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Skills, Strategies, and Techniques

On the spectrum between an agreement reached by the parties involved in a direct negotiation, based on a full and mutual understanding, and a binding decision rendered by a third party’s authority in a procedure of adjudication, there are many ways of resolving disputes. These options and possibilities create “a menu” of ADR (Alternative or Appropriate Dispute Resolution) mechanisms that were described in the Toolkit section Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms . These middle-of-the-range options include negotiation (with or without a facilitator) and mediation. The credibility and impartiality of the institutions that intervene in these roles is most important. However the quality of the individuals selected is also important.

Negotiators, facilitators and mediators must acquire the skills and learn the techniques required by their roles. First and foremost they need communication skills (active listening, talking clearly and precisely, and understanding and perception). Some of the techniques associated with using these skills include reframing positions as interests, using open questions, and separating the persons from the problem.

These same skills and techniques are basic requirements for mediators too. In addition they should have the following desirable traits:

  • ability to create trust among the parties
  • ability to define the issues of the dispute
  • patience, endurance, perseverance
  • thoughtfulness, empathy, flexibility
  • common sense, rational thinking
  • likeable personality
  • experience
  • neutrality, impartiality
  • problem-solving skills, creativity.

Among the techniques and strategies that may contribute to building consensus are:

  • Strategies based on interest-based negotiation.
  • The facilitative/passive strategy: the mediator acts as a facilitator of the process, and does not evaluate or suggest solutions. Strategies and techniques of facilitating and assisting the parties to understand their situation encourage the parties to communicate, and help them to reach an agreement.
  • The intervening/active strategy: the mediator evaluates the case and suggests solutions and options.
  • Use of experts and expertise in the disputed issues and seeking guidance for resolution of the dispute, based on law, industry practice, etc.
  • Mediators meet first with all parties in joint meetings, sometimes with each party in private caucus, and assist the parties in understanding their own underlying interests, and those of the opposing side.
  • During mediation the focus is on the future, but it does not ignore the past, which provides information about the issues and the causes of the conflict.
  • Mediators elicit ideas from each side for possible resolution, and assist the parties to develop a negotiated settlement, an agreement, which is usually put into writing, and can be ratified by the court.

Some of the above traits are part of the personality of the individual, and would be difficult to learn. However most of the skills can be learned through training and practice, as can the useful strategies and techniques.

Strengthening International Law to Protect Water Facilities

Declarations of new standards and promulgation of guidelines, though not legally binding, could achieve many of the same objectives. By placing increased emphasis on the international law of terrorism, prospects may be enhanced that those who attack water facilities will be brought to justice, and further acts of terrorism will be deterred. Finally, support for the International Criminal Court will improve the climate of accountability and enforcement of international law. These actions will contribute to a more stable and prosperous world, where citizens will have safe and reliable water supplies.

Develop Guidelines for Military Manuals and Instructions on the Protection of Water Facilities in Times of Armed Conflict

Guidelines for the protection of water facilities and watercourses during armed conflict should be developed. The objective would be to promote an active interest in, and concern for, the protection of water facilities during times of armed conflict. It should be noted that this type of document would be of use only for organized military forces that attempt to comply with international humanitarian law. Terrorist organizations present another set of challenges.

Systems Analysis, Models, and Decision Support Systems

An Overview [1]

In dealing with water resource management pressures up to the present, water resources experts have been using various tools, ranging from speculative, observation-based, and experimental to theoretical approaches. In the past, many different tools have been used for simulation and optimization of complex water resources systems and their operation under different conditions to provide improved basis for decision making. To assess and to help offset the pressure on water in the future, water management will more and more rely on sophisticated Water information management technology. The continuing evolution of information technology creates a good environment for the transition to new tools. Some current trends indicate greater future reliance on computer networking, easily accessible databases, decision support systems, object oriented programming, and system dynamics simulation.

Complexity and uncertainty are two features that will shape the tools for future water management. The first focuses on the complexity of the water resources domain and of the modeling tools in an environment characterized by continuous rapid technological development. The second deals with water-related data availability and natural variability of domain variables in time and space affecting the uncertainty of water resources decision making.

Future Tools for Water Management

Based on the two aspects above, there are four main directions in which future water management tools will be developed. They are:

Object-Oriented Simulation

Object-oriented modeling, a new way of thinking about problems using models organized around real-world concepts, is being identified as a powerful approach for water management. By separating policy questions from data, object-oriented modeling makes the model results functionally transparent to all parties involved in water management. The proposed approach is flexible, transparent, and allows for easy involvement of stakeholders in the process of water decision analysis.

There are numerous tools used for implementing the object-oriented modeling approach, which is an appropriate approach for the implementation of systems thinking. Complex water resources planning problems heavily rely on systems thinking, which is defined as the ability to generate understanding through engaging in the mental model-based processes of construction, comparison, and resolution. Computer software tools such as STELLA, DYNAMO, VENSIM, and POWERSIM help the execution of these processes.

The power and simplicity of use of object-oriented simulation applications is not comparable with those developed in functional algorithmic languages. In a very short period of time, the users of the water management tools developed by object-oriented simulation can experience the main advantages of this approach. The power of objectoriented simulation is the ease of constructing “what if” scenarios and tackling big, messy, real-world problems. In addition, general principles upon which the system dynamics simulation tools are developed apply equally to social, natural, and physical systems. Using these tools in water management allows enhancement of water models by adding social, economic, and ecological components into the model structure.

Evolutionary Optimization Using Powerful Computers

Use of Darwinian “survival of the fittest” approaches to solve difficult numerical optimization problems in various different forms such as genetic algorithms, evolutionary strategies, evolutionary programming, or simulated annealing, will shape the future of optimization.

The general characteristics of evolutionary optimization approaches include: generation of a population of initial solutions, evaluating them, selecting a small fraction of the best solutions, and applying the recombination and mutation operators to generate solutions with better fitness values. The progress is achieved as long as the best solutions that are selected as “parents” are capable of producing better “offspring.” A termination condition is met when there is no significant improvement in the objective function after a sufficient number of trials, or when a pre-specified number of trials have been reached.

Integration of Fuzzy Analysis with Simulation and Optimization Tools

Two basic forms of uncertainties are, first, uncertainty caused by inherent hydrologic (stochastic) variability, and second, uncertainty due to a fundamental lack of knowledge.

Simonovic (2000) points out that it is not the type of uncertainty that determines the appropriate way of modeling, but rather data sufficiency and availability. If sufficient data are available to fit a probability density distribution, then use of stochastic variables will be the best way to quantify the uncertain values. On the other hand, there is a scarcity of information if we are to address the requirements of sustainability, such as the needs of future generations, expanded spatial and temporal scales and long-term consequences. In this case, a fuzzy set approach can successfully utilize the information that is available.

Quantification of complex qualitative criteria, a process often encountered within water resources management, is a typical example where fuzzy systems modeling are favorable. Water quality, flood control, recreation, and many other qualitative criteria are still far from having precise analytical descriptions. Intuitive linguistic formulations are worth considering since fuzzy set theory provides a successful way to capture this information and use it in formal analysis.

Integration of Spatial Analysis with Simulation and Optimization

Most of the simulation and optimization tools used in water management up to now do not consider spatial dynamics of water systems in an explicit manner. In most cases, the approach has been to summarize the spatially important features of the water system with one or two aggregate relationships. For example, in the case of a reservoir, the spatially important details are summarized by non-linear functions linking surface area and elevation to the volume of water in the lake. Our understanding of some systems may be improved by introducing spatial dimensions in an explicit manner.

Spatial modeling can be implemented with any of the system dynamics simulation stock-and-flow software packages. The information in the dynamic model can be integrated with a Geographic Information System (GIS) to improve communication and interpretation. In this way, dynamic simulation models can deal with spatially explicit information while allowing fundamental laws to be expressed at one point in space (at the cellular level). The power of GIS is enhanced as well. When linked to a system dynamics simulation model, a GIS provides a dynamic perspective as well as a spatial perspective.

Use of Virtual Databases

Collection of data or information and sharing them among stakeholders is crucial in the water conflict resolution process. The advancement of computer sciences and information technologies provides improved measures in handling data and information. The present Internet technology is mature enough to support the development of virtual databases for a complex domain such as water-related conflict resolution. This mode of support has many advantages when compared to more traditional centralized database models. The virtual database (VDB) is an Internetbased data catalogue that facilitates search by data type, custodian, location, and other attributes from a distributed confederation of data holding organizations.

There is a large amount of relevant data that is usually maintained by various agencies, each with different levels of complexity. In general, each data series may consist of several data sets. Each data set may contain several features. A database system is a combination of one or more databases and a database management system. A database is a collection of data, and a database management system is a collection of programs that enable users to create, maintain, and explore a database.

Internet technology can be used to support data collection, processing, and dissemination. At present, the Internet can be accessed through the local area network (LAN), telephone line, cable, or wireless (mobile) technology. The facilities that the Internet provides include information browsing, database access, and file transfers at any time and from nearly anywhere.

Will Needed Data be Available?

At the beginning of VDB development it is necessary to communicate with all the stakeholders involved in the conflict, to capture all the relevant data and (numerical and descriptive) information, aspirations, proposals, modeling tools and so on. The major challenge that may be faced is that much needed data may simply not be available. Increasingly countries are abandoning their observation stations on the assumption that satellite-based measurements will provide the data required. While these will be of great value, and indeed reduce costs and provide interpretation that is impossible using physically disconnected observation stations, they will be of no value unless they can be ground-proofed (calibrated) from by a sufficient number of terrestrial observations. Participants in the Third World Water Forum recommended to the assembled ministers in the Ministerial Conference that “stakeholders be helped to obtain the capacity to fully participate in the process of development of basin and aquifer strategies, agreements and institutions, through transparency and information.” The required information will not be available if the basic data is not collected.

Decision Support

A Decision Support System (DSS) is envisioned as a tool for analyzing diverse development and management alternatives in water resources projects. It makes the decision-making process more transparent and efficient, which will aid in reducing future probable conflicts among different stakeholders.

A DSS allows decision makers to combine personal judgment with computer output, in a user–machine interface, to produce meaningful information for support in a decision-making process. Such systems are capable of assisting in solution of all problems (structured, semi-structured, and unstructured), using all information available on request. They use quantitative models and database elements for problem solving. “They are an integral part of the decision maker’s approach to problem identification and solution” (Simonovic, 1996, 1996a).

A DSS provides decision makers with assistance, including database access, descriptive and predictive models, geographic information systems, methods to involve stakeholders in the basin, and other tools and services.

Web Interaction

The World Wide Web (WWW) is a truly global communications vehicle and as such it plays an important role within the international water resources community.

In water resources management, especially in water-related conflict resolution, providing all the stakeholders involved in the conflict with access to data, analysis tools, and other relevant information is vital. It enables each interested party or stakeholder to investigate probable solutions to the conflict by themselves, and then negotiate with a better understanding of the consequences of the alternative solutions. The Web can provide this opportunity of giving all stakeholders access to the tools developed to analyze the conflict and a common database that has data and information relevant to the water conflict.

Stakeholders should not only have access to the databases, but also should be able to use the decision support system developed to analyze the conflict from their own computer. Also they can use various web-based decision support systems applicable in analyzing their problem via the Internet.


Common access to databases, models, and ultimately decision support systems built through a participatory process will increase transparency and trust. This technology may be added to the tools that negotiators, facilitators, and mediators may use along with their human skills to arrive at consensus solutions to sharing water resources.


Since the first World Water Forum sponsored by the World Water Council in Marrakech in March 1997, the futurist technique of visioning has been applied to the water sector. The most notable example was the World Water Vision exercise that employed scenario building (describing, with the use of models, what the world would look like if certain key drivers behave in certain ways) and visioning (a participatory process leading to a description of what the world ought to be). Using this process visions were developed for countries, sub-regions, and continents. In parallel with this, shared visions have been developed for river basins (the Nile and Mekong Delta basins being the best-known examples). The process is ongoing in other basins (Volga in Russia, Volta in Western Africa). The shared visions that are developed are not binding on anyone; they simply represent what the stakeholders believe would be the way they would like to live in interaction with the water resources in their basin. These shared visions do provide a framework for decision making in the future. The process of developing them creates awareness and understanding of the needs and expectations among the shareholders.

The use of modeling as a tool to assist in developing shared visions holds much promise. Shared vision modeling requires both the use of time-tested planning procedures and the active participation of those likely to be affected by a water resources plan. In simple terms, shared vision models are computer models developed by stakeholders, water managers, and water planners that incorporate planning objectives and performance measures into a framework that allows the generation and evaluation of alternatives in a manner that facilitates conflict resolution. These models typically contain assessments of social, economic, and environmental impacts as well as hydrologic and hydraulic analysis.

Shared vision modeling/conflict resolution appears to be more promising when applied to relatively new or low-intensity conflicts. Thus visioning would be best used long before legal or political alternatives have been considered, or for higher-intensity conflicts where agreements have been made or incentives have been imposed to maintain broad dedication to the process.

In the United States, one of the major advocates of shared vision modeling is the US Army Corps of Engineers. They have applied an interactive general-purpose model-building platform called Stella IITM in a number of exercises where conflicts existed over the design and operation of water systems. Each of these model-building “shared vision” exercises included numerous stakeholders together with experts in the use of Stella II.

Various social actors deploy strategies over varying spatial scales when competing or cooperating in accessing, using, or allocating water. They also deploy strategies over widely varying scales when competing to spell out the rules governing each of these activities. Farmers may resort to oral customary law to regulate their access and use of a neighboring spring or river for irrigation. This is often the case in the south of France where the new rules and regulations, especially those introduced by the European Union, clash with customary law. Very similar situations are also often found in the developing world, as examples in both the Middle East and South Africa illustrate. At the other end of the scalar spectrum, diplomats may consider the entire water resource lying in an international basin when negotiating a treaty with a riparian state. Is it conceivable that these two sets of actors act in full independence from each other? Is it possible that water conflicts and competitions occurring at local and national levels are irrelevant to an understanding of international water conflicts and conflict resolution? Those researching “water wars” have often assumed such independence between the various scalar levels of water conflict. This assumption has its roots in a perception of the state as the sole actor capable of spelling the rules of social control and as the sole actor capable of mobilizing legitimate means of violence.

Any understanding of international conflict concerning water and any successful conflict resolution proposals need to rely on multi-scalar analysis of the competitions and conflicts concerning water. Such an analysis explores the competition and conflict occurring over several scales. It explores the interactions between those who are active over different spatial and social scalar levels. The sum of these contradictory interests constitutes what is often reduced to “an international water conflict.”

The advantage of “shared vision models,” as the name implies, is that consensus in the model and in the computer results can be reached, since all parties participated in the development of the model and the model-based vision. The use of such models will permit stakeholders to confront their normative view of what the world ought to look like, with the physical and socioeconomic realities to which they must adapt at all scales.


  1. This section is drawn from the UNESCO-IHP Technical Document PCCP Series State-of-the-Art Report on Systems Analysis Methods for Resolution of Conflicts in Water Resources Management, edited by K. D. W. Nandalal, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka and Slobodan P. Simonovic, University of Western Ontario, Canada.

See also

External Resources


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