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🔬 "Boiling Point: Water, Borders & Conflict"

What About Water?

Photo by Martin Sanchez / Unsplash

Host: Jay Famiglietti
Guest: Aaron Wolf | Professor of Geography | College of Earth, Ocean, & Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University
Category: 🔬 Research

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[1:58] “Transboundary waters are any water that crosses any kind of boundary whatsoever. So that could be a sectoral boundary, or a provincial boundary ,or a state boundary. And if we are crossing countries, we call those international waters. They're actually 310 international watersheds around the world, it’s about half the land surface of the earth. And about 80% of surface water originates in basins that are shared by two or more countries.”

[3:31] “The truism in water is that water management is conflict management. If they were enough for everybody to do everything they wanted, we wouldn't have a scarce resource and we wouldn't have to worry about it at all. The trick is that there's not enough for everybody's uses within countries or certainly between countries. So the biggest indicator trigger of conflict between countries is one country, usually the upstream country, does something that impacts another country, the downstream country more often than not, and more often than not, the something is a dam. So if you look around the world at the tensest basins right now, on the Nile for example, or the rivers of South Asia, it’s upstream countries building dams over which there is no agreement for how to deal with the impacts of the dams.”

[4:39] “[The] general timeline that happens over shared waters is that countries tend to build unilaterally, tend to develop unilaterally, simply to avoid the headache and the potential conflict of impacting their neighbors. But at some point, you do end up impacting your neighbors. Pollution will cross the boundary or maybe a diversion will decrease the flow to another country, or a dam will change the timing or the flow to another country. And at that point, the other country will react. And oftentimes, that's when politicians get very involved. So oftentimes when the international community starts to focus on the basin and that's when you start to see the headlines for impending water wars, and the potential for conflict can be real and tangible in quite a lot of the world.”

[5:50] “This […] has been going on since time immemorial. […] But what tends to happen if we continue on with the timeline is precisely the urgency that brought countries to the point of potential conflict and also creates the setting for collaboration. And so it's that intensity of […] the press, it's the political awareness, it's the international communities bringing in resources, more often than not, it drives the countries to negotiate. And, and this can take 10 or 20 or 30 years. But at the end of the day, the general trend is for some kind of an agreement, some kind of acquiesce and some kind of joint management. And we'd now have some 700 treaties between countries that share basins over everything from hydropower, to water quality, to flow regimes. And so the longer story is, this has the potential to really trigger conflict. And it brings people to the point in negotiations and discussion, oftentimes even when they won't talk about other issues. And they do eventually come to some sort of an agreement.”

[11:40] “In my world I tend to think of four waters. There's physical water that we move, that we touch, that we can feel. There's emotional water, water tied to power and sovereignty and our histories or narratives. There's intellectual or mental water, the water that we calculate when we think about efficiencies or the price. And then finally, there's spiritual water. And I think often in the West, we're very used to talking about physical water or mental water, the things that we can calculate and measure. But more often than not, the conflict is with emotional water or spiritual water.”

[17:20] “The stress [that water will cause for 5 billion people by 2050] forces people to pay attention. I think, there was a certain danger when water was “easy” that you used it once, that you polluted it, and you sent it downstream. […] I think along with the increased stress that's coming, is increased awareness and certainly […] the better tools that we have. We can now monitor dams and groundwater across borders from satellites, so that we don't have to worry as much about trying to trust the other party for data. We have access to understanding what's happening in ungauged basins. We have a rich and growing community of champions who focus on dialogue around shared waters and the toolbox in our toolkit is growing all the time.”

Rating: 💧💧💧

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify
🕰️ 28 min | 🗓️ 01/05/2022
✅ Time saved: 26 min

Additional Links:
Book: “The Spirit of Dialogue: Lessons from Faith Traditions in Transforming Conflict” (Aaron Wolf, 2017)