Water Negotiator Aaron Wolf Spreads Liquid Hope
Water—more than money, oil, or guns—is the one resource that could finally get bitter enemies to broker peace
Water negotiator Aaron Wolf
image by Daniel Root
In the early ’90s, as Aaron Wolf was finishing his doctoral dissertation, the Madrid Middle East peace process was just getting under way. The two sides decided to tackle five sets of regional issues, including the equitable division of water resources. As a budding expert on the subject—his research focused on the Jordan River and its dual role as “a flashpoint and a vehicle for dialogue”—Wolf agreed to advise the U.S. team designing the talks.
Fifteen years later, one remnant of that failed attempt at Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking remains: the water negotiations. “They still go on,” Wolf says. “The two sides have cooperative projects. In the second intifada, when they realized how much violence there was going to be, they took out a joint advertisement asking both sides to try to protect the water infrastructure.”
The lessons of that enduring success have stayed with Wolf as he has pursued a remarkable dual career as an Oregon State University (OSU) scholar studying water-resource issues and a hands-on mediator of water disputes around the world. Water, he has come to understand, is so central to the human experience that it can help even bitter enemies find common purpose.
“That’s what’s so heartening about this,” the gentle geoscientist says. “Water can be used as a means for people of different ideological backgrounds to talk about a shared vision of the future.”
Wolf’s calling takes him all over the world, wherever bodies of water—usually rivers—are shared by two or more countries. A dam built upstream, on one side of the border, will affect the flow of water on the other side. Whose needs are more important? Is generating electricity the priority? What about pollution?
“Everywhere you find real tension,” he says, “you’ll also find shared rivers.”
Like a stream meandering from the mountains to the marshlands, Wolf’s work also courses through a wide variety of disciplines. Facilitating water-resource disputes requires a strong working knowledge of geography, geology, ecology, politics, diplomacy, and—at least the way Wolf handles disputes—spirituality.
“Aaron has shifted the way the whole world thinks about water,” says Anthony Turton, a political scientist and expert on transboundary water resources management. Wolf, a professor at OSU’s department of geosciences, founded and directs a postgraduate program in which economists, engineers, and ecologists add water-conflict resolution to their skill sets. He developed and coordinates the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, a compilation of more than 400 water-related treaties accompanied by maps, negotiating notes, background materials, and related news stories.
The database demonstrates that while violent conflicts over water are rare, peaceful interactions abound. “We are finding that water, rather than being the driver of conflict, is the one resource that unites people. It is simply too important to fight over,” Turton says.
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