What happens when competing claims for water lead to conflict? Do communities, with their water lawyers in tow, square off in court? Do they pick up arms and go to battle?
“There hasn’t been a war fought over water in 4,500 years,” says Aaron Wolf, an Oregon State University geoscientist and an expert on water conflict mediation. Nevertheless, conventional wisdom holds that in places where there is already conflict—the Middle East, for example, or India and Pakistan—a contested water source will lead to greater conflict and war.
Wolf says the record shows just the opposite: that opposing sides in such regions, after reaching a point of tension, have forged resilient bilateral working relationships over water. “India and Pakistan have a water treaty that has survived two wars between them,” Wolf notes. “And in the middle of one of the wars, India made payments to Pakistan as part of its treaty obligation.
“Here in the American West,” Wolf continues, “the prevailing wisdom was that water scarcity leads to conflict.” But when OSU graduate student Kristel Fesler superimposed a time line showing periods of water conflict in Oregon over a time line of drought conditions, there was no real correlation between scarcity and conflict. “The really active periods of conflict were when there were new legislative requirements,” Wolf says, “a new law or a new regulatory requirement or a new listing for the Endangered Species Act.” That creates tremendous uncertainty as people try to figure out where they fit in the new scheme of things.
Wolf’s research shows that in Oregon, as in the international arena, water conflicts are best resolved when the affected parties sit down in a room together and reach an equitable compromise, focusing on the benefits they derive from the water in question rather than their specific, quantifiable rights to it. “Because everybody is looking for something different from the water and because water is so unifying, in most cases and in most places, you can find a way to meet most of the needs in a basin,” he says. Oregon, with as many as 90 local watershed councils, is “on the cutting edge in the world” in terms of mediating potential water conflicts, according to Wolf.
“Fortunately, because water is used for all aspects of our biology and our economy and our psyche, you can figure out ways to meet the needs of the people in the room,” he says. And that is what the record shows has happened for 4,500 years.