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


| July-August 2009



Aaron Wolf, Water Negotiator

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?

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