Tapping Spirituality to Help Resolve Global Water ConflictsPublished: March 07, 2011
Born in 1960 in Iran to Jewish parents, Aaron Wolf, a professor of geography at Oregon State University and a trained mediator in conflict resolution, spent his formative years traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Israel. It was during this time that he grew interested in water. His ability to combine that interest with another -- spirituality -- came later. Today, he teaches mediation while his Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation weaves rational and spiritual philosophies into teaching about water resources management. Alongside that, Wolf launched the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, a compilation of 400 water-related treaties, negotiating notes, case studies and other information on methods of conflict resolution.
From that vantage point, he's well placed to understand humanity's track record in water conflict resolution, past and present. There are still a number of unresolved tensions over water in the Middle East, involving, for example, the Nile between Egypt and Sudan and upstream riparian countries as well as Iraq and Syria's disapproval of the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River in Turkey. Then there's the fact that Israel officially recognizes Palestinians' rights to water, but that recognition was never defined in the 1995 Oslo II agreements. They share the Mountain Aquifer (Israel and the West Bank) and the Coastal Aquifer (Israel and the Gaza Strip). Groundwater is the only source of water for Palestinians, yet they are barred from drilling without Israel's approval. The situation is particularly severe in Gaza, where the international community is looking at desalination to alleviate water shortages.
The following are edited extracts from his conversation with Knowledge@Wharton.
Knowledge@Wharton: Where does your interest in water come from?
Aaron Wolf: Both California and Israel have regular droughts, but I was also struck by how water was a subtext to a lot of local politics. In California, there was a lot of north-south tension about water resources. When we talked about left or right, there was often a water component to it. And the same in Israel: It was one of those places where you quickly understood that water had to be dealt with in the broader context of international relations.
Knowledge@Wharton: How did you move from water resource management to water conflicts?
Wolf: The transition was gentle. My master's degree was in groundwater flow. I then worked for the U.S. Geological Survey as a technician and kept coming up against the fact that both the problems and solutions are caused by people. So although you need a good understanding of the scientific side, an understanding of human systems is also essential.
I had heard someone mention the concept of environment conflict resolution at graduate school and as soon as I heard it, I knew that's what I wanted to move towards. I did my PhD in policy analysis and conflict resolution. It was combining the scientific side of the master's with the human side of the PhD.
Knowledge@Wharton: What is your approach to conflict resolution?
Wolf: Every situation is unique; there is no blue print. But there are two worlds that I draw from. The first is the rational school of thought to conflict resolution, which deals with what people's interests are, how to ask questions and craft dialogue around core issues. The other is related to the worlds of transcendence or spiritual transformation. My experience is that there are often moments of transformation in a room and rational models are very bad at thinking about how and why this happens. So in recent years, I have been working with people from different spiritual traditions to learn how they deal with concepts such as anger, conflict and transformation, because they have been thinking about it for a lot longer than the West has.
Knowledge@Wharton: How did you come to realize that spiritual transformation was an essential tool of mediation?
Wolf: In the same way that I realized that science only got you so far with water resource management and you had to understand human systems, I felt that understanding human systems from a rational perspective was very limiting. And I think most mediators feel that way: When it comes to dealing with real values or core issues, most people refer to the energy in the room, the transformation or being present.
Knowledge@Wharton: Is the Middle East making the best of its water resources?
Wolf: People make water allocation decisions -- that is, does it make sense to use the water for this purpose -- for two reasons: Socioeconomic and political. A lot of decisions are political rather than rational economic or environmental choices. The Great Man-made River in Libya, for instance, was a political decision. We also do a lot of things in the U.S. for political reasons that make no environmental or economic sense. That's true all over the world.
Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think about claims that the next world war will be fought over water?
Wolf: I don't think that will be the case. The assumption is very simplistic that because we're running out of a critical resource, people will fight across international borders. It doesn't take into account any aspects of human creativity, ingenuity, markets or history. There's only been one war over water and it was 4,500 years ago.
Knowledge@Wharton: Where are the greatest tensions over water at the moment?
Wolf: A lot of conflicts in the Middle East are stressful but probably not as much as the political rhetoric would suggest. One area of potential conflict is over the Helmand River in Afghanistan. The U.S. is very keen to reconstruct Afghanistan and a key aspect is agriculture. That could lead to a reduction in the Helmand's flow into Iran and might impact relations between Iran and the U.S.
China and the Himalayan rivers are also a big issue. Many rivers, such as the Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej, flow from China to other countries. But China hasn't signed the UNECE Water Convention [on the use of transboundary water].
Knowledge@Wharton: Wearing your conflict resolution hat, if you had one piece of advice for a businessman, what would it be?
Wolf: I would learn to listen. It is the most underrated yet transformative quality there is. It's like meditation. It sounds simple, until you try it.