IS Academy Lecture: Shared Waters. Conflict and Cooperation

Seminar date: 
11 March 2010
Place:   Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Hague (please bring identification)
Speaker(s): Marloes H.N. Bakker (Planbureau Leefomgeving) and Aaron T. Wolf (Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University)

Aaron Wolf is a professor of geography in the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University. He has an M.S. in water resources management (1988, emphasizing hydrogeology) and a Ph.D. in environmental policy analysis (1992, emphasizing dispute resolution) from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His research focuses on issues relating transboundary water resources to political conflict and cooperation, where his training combining environmental science with dispute resolution theory and practice have been particularly appropriate.

Marloes Bakker has got a M.Sc. in environmental sciences (2000, emphasizing environmental management and renewable energy) from the Vrije Universtiteit (Amsterdam) and a Ph.D. in resource geography (2007) from Oregon State University, Corvallis (USA). Her Ph.D. research was guided by Professor Aaron T. Wolf, and has filled important gaps in understanding effective water resource management on a global scale, emphasizing vulnerability to transboundary river flood events and related institutional capacity.

Ms. Bakker now works for the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving) on projects dealing global adaptation to climate change in developing countries, where she stresses the importance of the transboundary effects climate change has.

As of 12:00 lunch will be offered. The lecture starts at 12:15.
Language: English

Registration: 9 March at the latest at:

Registration is obligatory. If you have registered but are unable to attend please inform us as soon as possible. 

Discussant: Dr Marcel Rutten 

Abstract Prof. Aaron Wolf 

Water is an eloquent advocate for reason. Admiral Lewis Strauss. 

Water management is, by definition, conflict management: Water, unlike other scarce, consumable resources, is used to fuel all facets of society, from biologies to economies to aesthetics and spiritual practice. Moreover, it fluctuates wildly in space and time, its management is usually fragmented, and it is often subject to vague, arcane, and/or contradictory legal principles. As such, there is no such thing as managing water for a single purpose - all water management is multi-objective and based on navigating competing interests. Within a nation these interests include domestic users, agriculturalists, hydropower generators, recreators, and environmentalists - any two of which are regularly at odds, and the complexity of finding mutually acceptable solutions increases exponentially as more stakeholders are involved. Add international boundaries, and the difficulty grows substantially yet again.

While press reports of international waters often focus on conflict, what has been more encouraging is that, throughout the world, water also induces cooperation, even in particularly hostile basins, and even as disputes rage over other issues. This has been true from the Jordan (Arabs and Israelis) to the Indus (Indians and Pakistanis) to the Kura-Araks (Georgians, Armenians, and Azeris). Despite research that finds repeatedly and empirically that water-related cooperation overwhelms conflict over the last fifty years (see, most recently, Wolf et al. 2003), prevailing theories fail to explain this phenomenon. Certainly, there is a long history of conflicts over, or related to, shared freshwater resources. But there is also a long, and in many ways deeper, history of water-related cooperation. Why do countries that share a basin cooperate on water, even when they will not cooperate over other issues? Here is a resource on which we all depend, which fluctuates wildly in space and time, and for which there is little guidance in international law. By any quantitative measure, water should be the most conflictive of resources, not an elixir that drives enemies to craft functioning and resilient institutional arrangements.

This presentation will discuss conflict and cooperation over shared water resources internationally with special reference to the African Continent.

Abstract Dr Marloes Bakker 

Nothing is more flexible
more yielding or softer than water
yet when it attacks
none can withstand it.

Lao Tzu, 6th century BC 

Water is life-giving, and because of that, people have lived along the edge of rivers and lakes since earliest times. It has only been since the past century that technology has allowed permanent human colonization and settlement further away from water. The acceptance of a certain risk of flooding has always been a price for living close to rivers, because often, when excessive or uncontrolled water intrudes in the form of floods into areas reserved for other human purposes, the proximity to water has proven to be an inconvenience at least, but catastrophic at most.

Floods are among the world's most frequent and damaging types of disasters and annually affect the lives of millions all over the globe. The application of science and medicine has undoubtedly improved humankind's ability to predict, alleviate and survive flood disasters, but over time population growth, climate related factors aggravated by urbanization, and social, economic and political processes have massively increased and will continue to increase human exposure and vulnerability to floods. Vulnerability of societies to floods will only continue to grow in the coming years due to the earlier mentioned factors. While the international community has responded to this with a lot of research activity, it seems to be ignored that floods do not recognize national boundaries and therefore, few have touched upon the regularly occurring phenomena of shared, or transboundary floods occurring in the 279 international river basins. Consequently, vulnerability to shared river floods is still poorly understood.

The second part of this presentation will provide a more detailed picture of vulnerability of societies to transboundary river floods as well as the current related institutional capacity. In addition, and if time allows, a project carried out by PBL and funded by DGIS on transboundary water management and climate change adaptation issues will be briefly introduced.