Aaron Wolf is both a professor of geography at Oregon State University and a trained mediator in conflict resolution — two professions he has melded together when working on the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as numerous disputes in central and southeast Asia and Africa.
Born in 1960 in Iran to Jewish parents, Wolf 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.
Some consider Wolf’s use of spirituality in negotiations to be unconventional. Others disagree, noting that he is, in fact, drawing on ancient schools of thought. But either way, as he noted in this interview with Knowledge at Wharton, there are plenty of lessons provided for everyone on both sides of a negotiating table.
The following are edited extracts from the conversation.
Knowledge at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at Wharton: Did you have a transformative moment yourself?
Wolf: In our training, we show a map of a watershed with the political boundaries. Then we take the boundaries off the map. For a lot of people, it’s the first time they see their world in a different light. You can feel a jolt in the room when they see their watershed in a way they never have before. The idea came from someone who worked for a major development bank. He had a deep spiritual side and he said that the maps worked like an analog for spiritual transformation. That was my “Aha!” moment.
Knowledge at Wharton: You mention working with people from different spiritual traditions. What did your research involve?
Wolf: In 2004 and 2005, I had a sabbatical. The timing was perfect. I had just realized that this was the path I wanted to explore. Along with the Pacific Institute and the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Science, I organized a meeting in Vatican City. We brought people with different spiritual traditions and water negotiation experts, and we put them in a room for three days. It was interesting, but I don’t think it was productive. Three days wasn’t nearly enough to bridge the gaps in the room. But it did help me hone the questions I wanted to ask. First, how do spiritual traditions construct concepts or emotions such as conflict or anger? Second, what tools do they use to create settings that are conducive to transformative processes.
I spent a year researching these questions, and I spent a lot of time in Jerusalem working with Kabbalists and Sufists and studying Christian theology. I also spent some time in Thailand working with a Buddhist monk, who was also a mediator.
Knowledge at Wharton: How did they influence you?
Wolf: I don’t know how to separate myself as an individual from myself as a researcher. But purely from a practitioner point of view, there is an incredibly rich world of spirituality that we’ve failed to tap into in the West but these traditions have used for an awfully long time elsewhere.
There were some interesting commonalities in how different traditions construct the world. Most look at it through four lenses: The physical, the emotional, the intellectual and the spiritual. You see that over and over again. We call it Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but [Abraham] Maslow clearly stole it from God because all traditions have it.
For a water person, it is particularly useful to establish what water means. When people are dying of thirst, it’s hard to talk to them about leaving flow for ecosystem protection or an endangered species. The sequence of needs helps us think about all the different meanings, because when we say water, it can mean different things to different people.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is it a way of prioritizing?
Wolf: Exactly, and it has been applied formally. I took part in a great meeting of Israelis and Palestinians in Switzerland in 2008 and we focused the discussions on water needs. We started by defining needs: Are we talking about agriculture, industry, drinking water or spiritual needs? Once we started thinking about a sequence, things just fell right into place.
People in the room agreed that the first priority should be drinking water, and everybody needed the same amount of drinking water, whether they were Israeli or Palestinian. But there was also a great spiritual need because water is not something you can do without, for instance, for ablutions or Mikvah [the ritual immersions of Judaism].
We then went through the sequence, and subsistence agriculture and subsistence industry came next. The idea of subsistence/survival was very important. Endangered ecosystems were next, followed by industrial agriculture and commercial industry. By prioritizing, we realized that you couldn’t put market mechanisms in place for essential physical and spiritual needs.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why is that? What does the market miss?
Wolf: Usually in global discussions about water resources, the issue is couched as an “either or.” Water either is a human right or it’s a commercial good. Both require very different ways of thinking about how water is allocated and to whom. Mediators are always concerned about how to turn an “or” into an “and.” So our question was: How do we guarantee the human right to water while making room for market mechanisms?
What this group did was distinguish between water for survival and water for commercial operations. You can’t tell people they don’t have enough money for drinking water. That has an ethical dimension to it. The same for subsistence. If water is used for survival, you can’t price somebody out, otherwise you’ll take away their livelihood. This needs to be subsidized.
Commercial farming is different. All inputs are market driven — the price of seeds, fertilizer, etc. So there is no reason why the price of water shouldn’t have a market value attached to it. That way we could also get away from some of the immense waste we see in commercial agriculture.
Knowledge at 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 at 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 at Wharton: Why did you develop a conflict database? Was it to prove your point that humans are incredibly resourceful and that conflict more often than not ends in resolution rather than war?
Wolf: That wasn’t my goal. My goal was to answer the question: How much conflict has there been versus how much cooperation? When I got into this field in the early 1990s, all you heard about was war. I’ve been trained as a scientist so I asked the question scientifically. What do we actually know? What are the drivers? Initially, it was about compiling statistics. I found it astonishing that we were making these grand proclamations about war and peace yet we had almost no evidence whatsoever. The more I found out, the more I became intrigued about the propensity of water as a resource to lead people to dialogue and creativity rather than conflict.
Knowledge at 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 at Wharton: Who attends your conflict resolution courses and what do you teach them?
Wolf: It’s mostly people like me, who have been trained technically but found that most of their day-to-day job is about managing conflict. We did a study for the Bureau of Reclamation [the agency that manages water in the American West] and most managers said they spent half their time managing conflicts. The higher they got in the agency, the more time they spent doing this. And they’re not trained for it. They’re trained in engineering, economics and any number of technical fields. They’re very good at what they do, but they’re keen to learn new skills.
We also do training around the world in water basins where there are ongoing conflicts. We run these sessions outside of formal negotiations. It helps to build up skills and have an experience together without the pressure of formal negotiations.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you meet skeptics, people who don’t buy into the spiritual discourse?
Wolf: You have to distinguish between religion and spirituality. As soon as you start talking about religion, half the room gets tense. You can see it in the body language. People will also comment on the irony that religion is at the root of most conflicts. If you really want to focus on processes, such as transformation or transcendence, you have to find a common ground, such as recovering from an accident or having a baby. Your world is profoundly rocked when you become a parent; you can’t explain it in rational terms. People also find spirituality in fly-fishing, rock climbing or whatever else, and as long as we’re talking on those terms, most people get it.
There are a lot of situations where I don’t use the words religion or spirituality. If we’re talking about the four needs, for instance, I can draw just as easily from Maslow as I can from the Bible. I try not to push people past their comfort levels.
Knowledge at Wharton: What can businesspeople learn about transformation and water conflict resolution?
Wolf: It’s going to sound obvious but the power of real transformative listening and being present solely to understand somebody else is one of the most important things I have learned. Yet it’s something we do really badly in the West. There is a joke: “For an American, what’s the opposite of speaking? Waiting to speak.”
Businesspeople will recognize that. When you’re sitting down for discussions or negotiations, even in a regular meeting, how many times have you asked someone a question to understand more about how they feel? We need to learn to set aside the things we want to put on the table and profoundly and deeply listen to others until we really understand what their issues are. That process is transformative. People who feel they have been listened to are generally willing to listen in turn. That’s the moment in the room when the whole dynamic changes.
Knowledge at Wharton: So using your BlackBerry in a meeting and checking e-mails is not going to be conducive to great outcomes?
Wolf: I don’t think so. Presence is something that most spiritual traditions emphasize. The power of presence, of silence, of reflection, of really being there — it is something that we need to learn to do better. If you’re multi-tasking, you’re not doing anything brilliantly.
Knowledge at Wharton: 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.