Spiritual lessons may aid in water disputes

Aaron Wolf

Despite intense competition for water around the globe, international cooperation is surprisingly strong, but it could work even better by applying powerful lessons learned from a study of spiritual transformation.

This is the premise driving Aaron Wolf’s current research project, “Spiritual Transformation and Lessons for Environmental Negotiations, or, Conflict, Cooperation, and Kabbalah.” Wolf is a Research Fellow and an OSU geographer with wide experience in negotiation, particularly in international water resource issues. He has acted as consultant to the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the World Bank, as well as various governments, and has been involved in developing strategies for resolving water aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Wolf’s books include Hydropolitics Along the Jordan River: The Impact of Scarce Water Resources on the Arab-Israeli Conflict; and, as co-author, Core and Periphery: A Comprehensive Approach to Middle Eastern Water, and Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Resolution: Theory, Practice, and Annotated References.

His Center research project will result not only in the usual academic publication but in practical training tools for global mediation as well. “In general, the point of this research is ‘simply’ to add to the toolbox accessible for managing environmental conflicts,” he wrote in his project summary.

To this end, he is exploring the relationship between political conflict and cooperation, and approaches and techniques from the realm of spiritual transformation, specifically as they might be applied in international negotiations over rivers. The particular focus is on the “points at which parties move from thinking of themselves as representing countries, to perceiving more broadly the needs of all stakeholders within a basin. These are critical junctures, where movement from ‘rights-based’ to ‘needs-based’ to ‘interest-based’ to ‘equity-based’ negotiations suddenly becomes possible. “

Those involved often can identify the precise moment when their thinking alters dramatically—the “aha!” moment—where emphasis shifts from individuals thinking only in terms of their own agenda to also understanding the needs of others.

“Traditional conflict resolution models define these moments in rational terms—‘People come to agreement when it is in their interest to agree.’ Even overlooking the tautological nature of this argument, ‘rationality’ often does not hold sway if the conflict involves even a modicum of real emotion.”

To really understand the process of transformation and the settings most conducive to it, said Wolf, it is well to look outside the field of conflict resolution as defined in modern, academic terms, and turn instead to the spiritual realm. “Every spiritual tradition in the world, after all, is devoted to precisely this process of transformation, to aid individuals in moving from a focus on their own immediate wants and desires, to addressing more their obligations to society, humanity, and to the divine.”

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.”

The striking thing, said Wolf, is the level of cooperation that is achieved. While press reports of international issues 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. Nonetheless, it may take years or even decades to reach agreement, during which time political tensions may be exacerbated, ecosystems go unprotected, and water may be managed inefficiently, at best. His hope is that a spiritual-based approach could speed up resolution.

“Despite research that finds repeatedly and empirically that water-related cooperation overwhelms conflict over the last fifty years, prevailing theories fail to explain this phenomenon. . . Why do countries that share a basin cooperate on water, even when they will not cooperate over other issues? 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.”

Others who have looked at the phenomenon offer economic, environmental and strategic rationales in explanation, but Wolf finds these inadequate. “Prevailing wisdom in both the science and policy of water resources seems not to provide the foundation to be able to answer this clearly ethical question. Perhaps some part of the answer lies not in the world of rationality, but rather in the spiritual, ethical and moral dimensions of water conflict resolution.”