While water is often seen as the likely source of conflict, the opportunities to find cooperative solutions abound. In fact, research led by Aaron Wolf and colleagues indicate that water is more likely to lead to cooperation than conflict, including in transboundary situations. As water and climate change are intimately tied—more droughts, more floods, more nutrient runoff—finding ways to manage local, regional, national and international water issues becomes increasingly important.
As a Fulbright scholar in Sweden this year, I have been exploring these topics in conversation with colleagues within Sweden and across Europe. I am impressed by the people I’ve met, the commitment to understanding what is happening, and the interest and focus on finding potential solutions.
A few common themes have emerged:
- There is already a lot of research and work to integrate across siloes. For example, researchers at KTH’s WaterCentre are working on a project to examine conflict & cooperation between informal and formal urban water regimes in Asia and Africa. At Uppsala University’s Department of Earth Sciences, researchers lead a project to examine the interplay between flood, drought and human society. Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Science Centre has researchers focused on a range of topics, including on contaminants of emerging concern and ensuring science reaches policy makers. These are only examples- I’ve had the privilege of being introduced to work at many more universities, non-profits, and government agencies. I’m also struck by the parallels to work happening elsewhere in the world; Penn State is partnering with other U.S.- based universities on the Program on Coupled Human & Earth Systems. As such research projects evolve, we are also training our students on more integrative ways of thinking, of understanding, of seeking to find solutions to challenging questions.
- There is a need to produce and share knowledge together—from those most vulnerable to those who research to those who are making decisions—to address critical challenges associated with water, food, energy, climate, and more. A recent study from the Stockholm Resilience Center and Stockholm University documents ways to co-produce knowledge, noting that such processes need to be context based, pluralistic (representing a range of views), goal-oriented, and interactive. As the world shifted online during recent weeks due to the coronavirus, how does this open opportunities for constructive online engagement? And how do we ensure that the most vulnerable and least connected are also included?
- Time is also a challenge. The world as we know it is changing rapidly, including management of water resources. Learning to adapt in very real time— to declining groundwater, floods and droughts, impacts to livelihoods and ecosystems, governance issues, and more— is a challenge. Again, how can we learn from each other on what is working? One way to accelerate potential change is again through marrying needs with skills. In another blog post written for the dispute resolution community, I argue that communities need help having challenging conversations about climate change and dispute resolution professionals are looking for how they are relevant in this day and age. Functional conversations can help address the imperative for rapid change.
- Scale is also a challenge, and an opportunity. While solving water management challenges at a global scale is difficult, basin or sub-basin scale offers opportunities. For example, the Chehalis River Basin of Washington State is moving forward on managing both flood and drought impacts, as well as ecological concerns. How can we share these local successes?
- Finally, the human element is incredibly important. As noted by Vincent Ostrom and Eleanor Ostrom in 1972, “any system of water works must be accompanied by a system of human enterprise that involves the allocation, exercise and control of decision-making capabilities in the development and use of water supplies.” I heard this theme echoed at World Water Week during a session entitled “Water, peace and development: drivers of change in transition states.” Representatives from Somalia, South Sudan, Somaliland, and Gambia spoke about the opportunity for rebuilding their water infrastructure and their water governance as combined drivers of change.
Stories of hope, of success, of what is working are sorely needed. In my experience as a neutral mediator working on complex water issues, it is this hope and idea that we can indeed find solutions that is also the key to finding a path forward.
/Lara B. Fowler, Fulbright Scholar, Uppsala University, Sweden 2019-2020. Senior Lecturer, Penn State Law. Assistant Director, Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment.