Water Conflict and Cooperation/Shared Waters and Ethics

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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).

This particular section draws heavily on Water for Peace: A Cultural Strategy by Fekri A. Hassan in the UNESCO-IHP technical documents PCCP Series, and on the keynote address Ethical and Cultural Incentives of Water for Cooperation given by Professor Hassan at the International conference From Conflict to Cooperation in International Water Resources Management at IHE Delft, November 21 2002.

What are Ethics?

Conflict and cooperation are social processes embedded in a deeper cultural matrix. Any attempt to transform situations of conflict or potential conflict must entail an understanding of social change. In developing ethical and cultural incentives of water for cooperation one must explore the means by which societies undergo transformational changes, and understand the processes by which attitudes and institutions change.

Our outlooks on life, perceptions, cognitive styles, and sensibilities are the result of the dynamics of being in the world as individuals and coping within the parameters of our cultural inheritance with ever-changing life situations. Individuals are neither passive puppets enacting traditional cultural programs nor totally free agents who can create their world ex nihilo. Traditions are important. They maintain a sense of order and stability. At the same time, a blind or dogmatic adherence to tradition can prevent societies from coping with new situations. Hence societies cannot live long without admitting change and innovations. Human society is the product of a long evolutionary journey in which constant change or adaptation has been characterized by two driving forces, social organization and intelligence.

The virtues of love and compassion in human beings are intertwined in human minds with the capacity to transcend their bodily interactions in the world and their circumstantial situations. This exceptional mental power, which can be traced in our cousins among the primates, is magnified to such an extent that it sets us apart from other animals. Transcending the tangible world – developing, storing, processing, and retrieving ideas in a world of “virtual reality” – was tantamount to an evolutionary threshold. It was a revolutionary achievement that has enabled us to survive under very different environments, from the arctic to the tropics, from parched deserts to rainforests, from valley floors to mountaintops. This exceptional intelligence allowed us to solve problems, not the least of which is living with others who are different from us. In fact, sociality was the womb of intelligence.

In turn, intelligence is the guardian of sociality. There are often more problems to solve in a social environment than those encountered in dealing with natural environments. As emotional animals with the proactive minds of thinking primates, humans are prey to swings of moods and flights of fancy – some can bring us close together, while some can repel, threaten or endanger others. The mind thus becomes a powerful game-playing tool. Its individual reality (subjectivity) must be harmonized with that of others if the individual is to survive. As such, there is no such thing as individual subjectivity: subjective views are embedded in a socially constructed intersubjectivity, the only kind of objectivity humans know. To know others or the world without human eyes and cultural lenses and filters constituted by our being in society, which is in turn a channel in the braided stream of human culture, is impossibility. For us, absolute objectivity is a meaningless notion.

Our actions are determined by a system of moral principles for individual, community, and international behavior, or ethics. Ethical notions are enshrined in rituals and imbued with a sense of inviolability and sanctity. Ethical beliefs are bonded in our minds with deep emotions and sentiments that verge at times on passion, zeal, and devotion. Ethics are not the dry subject of textbooks. They are the incendiary fuel of disputation and the pacifying ointment of social cohesion.

Ethics and Social Performance

Changes from conflict to cooperation are much more than resolution of conflict. The aim is to transform the situation in a manner that ensures cessation of hostile confrontation and disputes, and the creation of an environment that could sustain cooperation. Such a change is a process that involves individuals, social groups, governments, and institutions.

Individuals are dynamic entities, forming groups of people related in different degrees and by bonds that vary in their strength. Each individual is socialized as soon as he or she is born, by parents, family, and wider society (represented by schools, mass media, governmental agencies, and religious institutions). As the individual matures, his or her thoughts and practices begin to shape a personality that will eventually influence his/her ideas and behavior. Individuals may separately converge upon similar ideas. They may then coalesce to further their ideas. A society changes in response to the degree in which new ideas are incorporated in older structures that are conserved and guarded in the name of tradition, authenticity, and identity. Swift and dramatic changes can be short-lived and/or catastrophic. Conflict between old and new is normal because change threatens the security engendered by what is familiar. The emotional comfort of the ways of the ancestors may and often does create a barrier against innovations, which entail troublesome readjustments of cherished notions and practices.

Incentives aimed at encouraging cooperation rather than conflict in international as well as regional and community management of water resources cannot be separated from existing modes of ethical and cultural beliefs and attitudes. Nor can they be considered without the cognitive and emotive processes by which individuals accept or reject new ideas transmitted as messages by messengers through specific channels of communication.

Emerging social values force us to re-examine traditional planning objectives. Rather than maximizing economic efficiency or optimizing the opportunity to meet public objectives, planners – especially in industrialized countries – now often set limits to growth. Often a certain inherent moral value is granted to non-humans, establishing a system of competing claims that ultimately limit human population, patterns of consumption, and technological development. Any equitable solution to these problems of competing claims with non-humans requires the application of a system of ethics and a notion of justice that substantially modifies the value systems of many cultures.

International Trends

Since the 1970s a series of international meetings and conventions have provided milestones on the way to sustainable water resource management, leading to the widely accepted Dublin principles for managing water:

  • Freshwater is a finite and vulnerable resource, essential to sustain life, development, and the environment.
  • Water development and management should be participatory, involving users, planners, and policy makers at all levels.
  • Women are central to providing, managing, and safeguarding water.
  • Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic and social good. [1]

These principles recognize the close interrelationships between economic, social, and environmental security.

Principles Adopted at the Stockholm Water Symposium 2002

At the Stockholm Water Symposium in 2002 there was a rare degree of unanimity among organizations representing water managers and other stakeholders on four basic principles.[2]

1. Water users must be involved in the governance of water resources.

The behavior of local water users is the ultimate test of policy success. Users must be informed of and closely involved in the governance decisions affecting their freshwater use. While it is essential that government exercise a strong hand in protecting natural resources and the common good, it must accomplish this through a close, effective and continuing dialogue with water users.

2. We must break now the link between economic growth and water degradation.

Activities generating wealth often contaminate water, resulting in pollution of rivers and groundwater throughout the world. If this continues unabated, available water becomes too polluted to use, and the world has less water available. Positive, proactive national and local action toward water pollution abatement and restoration is essential today to avoid even more severe problems in coming decades.

3. Urban water services are crucial for urban stability and security.

An adequate flow of water through a city is a necessary condition for the health of its inhabitants and also for the functioning of industries, hospitals and other city components. A secure water supply is essential for a sustainable city, and realistic, budgeted planning must extend to the poor and peri-urban areas of our cities.

4. Policy, planning, and implementation must move towards integrated solutions.

In its downstream flow, water is linked to land use and ecosystems in a river basin. Water management, land use, and ecosystem policies must therefore complement rather than counteract each other. Sector approaches to drinking water supply, water for food production, and water for nature must urgently be complemented by an integrated approach that considers all of these. Institutional arrangements must be put in place to ensure integration.

Between Rio and the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, the world’s nations met in several major conferences under the guidance of the United Nations, including the Monterrey Conference on Finance for Development and the Doha Ministerial Conference. These conferences defined for the world a comprehensive vision for the future of humanity. Recognizing the importance of building human solidarity, heads of state in the closing political statement urged the promotion of dialogue and cooperation among the world’s civilizations and peoples, irrespective of race, disabilities, religion, language, culture, or tradition. It is to be hoped that this solidarity will also embrace hydrosolidarity: the solidarity between downstream and upstream citizens of a watercourse in managing their water in the interest of all.

None of these statements or declarations, however, focuses exclusively on international freshwater sources. Despite the efforts over the past decade to expand global institutional capacity over freshwater resources, no supranational agency exists to manage transboundary resources globally. While many of the principles of national water management apply to international rivers and lakes, the political, social, and economic dynamics associated with transboundary waters can require special consideration.

Yet in recent years, there has been movement on the ground as well: the World Bank and UNDP have collaborated to facilitate the Nile Basin Initiative, which looks close to establishing a treaty framework and development plan for the basin. The Bank also is taking the lead on bringing the riparians of the Gurani Aquifer in Latin America to dialog. The US State Department, a number of UN agencies, and other parties have established a Global Alliance on Water Security aimed at identifying priority regions for assistance, which may help countries to avoid escalating conflict. The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is now active in fifty-five international basins. The UNECE has programs on ten European and Central Asian basins, and supports the International Water Assessment Center. SADC and ESCAP have been taking the lead in establishing transboundary dialogs within their respective regions. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has also launched a project on international waters.

Getting beyond the imperative of integrated international basin management, a concept whose practice is in fact the exception rather than the rule, has been an important step in some basins. Even friendly states often have difficulty relinquishing sovereignty to a supra-legal authority, and the obstacles only increase along with the level of suspicion and rancor. At best, in many regions, one might strive for coordination over integration. Once the appropriate benefits are negotiated, it then becomes an issue of “simply” agreeing on a set quantity, quality, and timing of water resources that will cross each border. Coordination, when done correctly, can offer at least the same benefits as integration, and be far superior to unilateral development, but does not threaten the one issue all states hold dear: their very sovereignty.

Creating Incentives for Change

With a few exceptions, individuals do not change their minds overnight. The process of change is gradual and cumulative. It starts with novel ideas followed by structural adjustments and so on, until the structural re-arrangement of ideas becomes a selective force in its own right as individuals at the threshold of radical transformation seek to strengthen their newly emerging outlook by seeking and practicing what their ideas prescribe. At a certain point, social and historical contingencies create and facilitate the dissemination of key ideas. The adoption of the ideas by certain individuals provides nuclei for social change. Ideas may emerge within the downtrodden, but such individuals rarely have the clout or the know-how to effect change. However their views, which are often emotionally camouflaged or alloyed with despair and anger, may elicit suppression and repression. The suffering and humiliation of the downtrodden, however, may be recognized by the media, national authorities, or international agencies. Whatever the motivation, the call for change in order to remedy the problems suffered by the downtrodden has over history acquired a “biblical” dimension, the aura of a sacred imperative, no doubt brought about by the evolutionary validation of the ethics of equity as a social strategy.

Purposeful change begins with the recognition of a problem, finding its causes, providing the means to generate solutions, and finally implementing the solutions. This apparently simple model is deceptive. It masks the social process in the “rational” process of thinking – a process that is not wrong for being a matter of reasoning, but is faulty and defective because it is “abstract” – divorcing thought from the process by which thought is expressed, generated, and translated to action. In this context, a ministerial declaration must be viewed as an element in the social process of creating an increasing awareness of the water problem and a preparation for the next steps.

Efficient incentives are those that either amplify existing beliefs or promise a better payoff: personal, social, or economic. The process from conflict to cooperation is never purely a matter of economic calculus, ideological confrontations, or legal disputation. Cooperation is bound with notions of mutual recognition of rights and obligations, mutual respect and acceptance, which are grounded in the ethics of justice and equity. Yet every party to a conflict in a governmental delegation or a professional team is imbued with emotive ethical notions and personal strategic, social, and economic outlooks. Mistrust, grievances, and enmities are obstacles to resolving water conflicts, which are often embedded in a historical context of emotional dimension. Incentives for cooperation must involve reconciliatory mechanisms to sustain a positive milieu for dialogue.

Incentives for the resolution of water conflicts and the promotion of cooperation will fail if they are solely focused on water rights, legal obligations, or history. Nor should they be restricted to the overall advantages of cooperation. Instead they should extend to consideration of tactical actions that, if taken, in the long term will institutionalize cooperation.

Partnerships for Peace

Peacemaking is not a process limited to the work of governments. Important as that work is, it depends in fundamental ways on changes in human relationships, an arena well beyond the reach of governments alone. Ministers responsible for water affairs are not necessarily representatives of their governments as a whole or of public opinion. However they are well placed to transmit their views to the ministerial cabinets of their countries and to engage ministers of information, education, and culture, university professors, research institutions, NGOs, and grass-root associations and alliances to work with them to mobilize public support, disseminate information, and implement change.

Any change imposed from the top will be short-lived, unless it entails a mechanism to win the support of the public regardless of the political configuration of the state. Incentives for cooperation must thus realistically work both with governments and the public as individuals in organized movements or groups whose ideas and arguments are largely inseparable from an emotional ingredient. The incentives must be also elements of an integrated long-term vision based on the fruits of cooperation.

Professionals have a leading role to play along with diplomats, policy makers, and legislators. A partnership between professionals and the public is essential for promoting cooperation. The professionals form the bridge between government and the public. Professionals in turn need academic and social incentives to encourage them to cooperate with other professionals to meet the demands of integrated management of international and national water resources.

UNESCO and other international organizations also have to define their role. Perhaps they could develop an integrated package that countries can use to generate a national discourse on water for peace and prosperity. This integrated package would involve strategies, procedures, and educational material to engage the media, ministers, universities and research institutions, schools, children, and communities to debate, discuss, and develop national programs.

Although women are the main users and managers of water, they are often left out of the decision-making and planning processes. Many of our problems and wrong decisions occur because humanity has advanced technologically faster than biological changes required in humans to cope with the new environment the species has created. Men took most of the decisions that have created our problems. One solution (other than biological engineering of humans to create a species that is adapted to our environment) would be to put women in the positions of responsibility. Certainly women appear to be much more socially adept than men. And they to a large extent determine the values that are taught to the next generation. Perhaps in the end it is by teaching our children a system of moral principles for individual, community, and international behavior based on the shared fundamental human values of justice and equity that will build this world of Water Peace.


  1. The Earth Summit in Rio added recognition of the social nature of water to the Dublin principles in 1992.
  2. Organizations that endorsed the statement included the Global Water Partnership (GWP); International Water Association (IWA); International Water Resources Association (IWRA);Stakeholder Forum; Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI); Water Environment Federation (WEF); World Business Council for Sustainable Development; and the World Water Council (WWC).

See also

External Resources


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