CORVALLIS - It's increasingly popular in arid regions, including much of the American West, to bemoan the many conflicts that arise over competing uses of water for irrigation, domestic supply, fish, recreation and hydroelectricity. Some alarmists even allude to "water wars" looming in our future.
That's basically nonsense, says an expert at Oregon State University.
With an eye towards ancient history, expertise in water resource management and a diplomat's training in conflict resolution, Aaron Wolf says that the real story of water disputes is one of surprising cooperation in the long run, even among mortal enemies facing extraordinarily difficult disputes.
"It's not that the conflicts over water use are trivial," says Wolf, an OSU assistant professor of geosciences. "It's the fact that they are so very serious, and everyone knows it, which tends to bring people to the negotiating table, make them behave more rationally and work out reasonable solutions."
In support of this thesis, Wolf points to a sophisticated database he has recently compiled - probably the most comprehensive of its type in the world - which has examined water treaties all over the globe going back almost 5,000 years.
And what it shows, he says, is a history of cooperation and compromise, not conflict.
"The study of water disputes throughout recorded time reveals only one single war that was actually linked to a water resource conflict," Wolf said. "That was between the city-states of Lagash and Umma in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley about 2,500 B.C. Since that battle in what is now Iraq and Syria thousands of years ago, there have been no further wars over water."
What his database also shows, however, is that since that time some 3,600 water treaties have been created around the world, each with a fair share of argument and animosity, but which in the end resulted in reasonable ways to divide and use one of the world's most limited resources.
The key to this type of cooperation, Wolf says, has been the importance of water.
"About 40 percent of the world's population and half of the land surface of the Earth is in a shared, international watershed," Wolf said. "The critical importance of that water, for drinking, irrigation, wildlife, even religious ceremonies, has made taking away a country's water supply tantamount to attacking them with a nuclear weapon."
That deadly seriousness with which people view their water, Wolf said, has led to cooperation and treaties over water that often eluded the same countries in other, less vital matters.
"India and Pakistan created a water agreement in 1960 that survived two wars, and India even made some required payments while fighting was under way," Wolf said. "The Arabs and Israel have cooperated informally on water issues through three wars. We've seen similar examples through history."
Those examples, Wolf said, are now available through his database to anyone involved in a water conflict who would like to see, perhaps, how a similar issue was resolved in Europe during the 1800s. It's called a "Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database."
"I study what has driven even hostile combatants to compromise," Wolf said. "It's really quite fascinating how people who hate each other's guts can end up working together."
With a master's degree in water resource management, a doctorate in dispute resolution and an eye to the past that would be the envy of a historian, experts such as Wolf see few problems they consider impossible to solve - few, in fact, that don't have multiple historical precedents for a blueprint.
"It's quite true that water is a fixed resource with growing demands upon it," Wolf said. "To make progress in negotiations, what we try to do is get opposing parties talking about what they really need, as opposed to what they supposedly want or have rights to. Then you can try to develop creative ways to more effectively use or manage a resource so everyone can be satisfied."
For example, he said, an urban area may be in conflict with nearby agricultural interests using water for irrigation. One possible solution is for the city that wants more water to help pay for farmers to irrigate their fields more efficiently. Crops are still grown and water is made available for urban use.
Using such approaches, Wolf has helped the U.S. Department of State address water conflicts in negotiations between Arab nations and Israel. He helped outline options for an interstate compact between Alabama, Georgia and Florida. And he's optimistic similar approaches might work in the Pacific Northwest.
"Since I'm new to the area I know very little about the specific complexities of the Pacific Northwest water conflicts," Wolf said. "But similar issues of irrigation, fisheries, stream protection and hydropower are among the most common conflicts all over the world. This is not a new problem.
"On these issues I'm just an optimist," he said. "If the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians can work out how to divide the Jordan River, I don't see why we can't work things out on the Columbia."
For spiritual guidance, local antagonists might even turn to the past water conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East, among Bedouins and Berbers. Following the reaching of an agreement, the whole community participates in a "ceremony of forgiveness," called a "Sulkha" in Arabic, so they all feel committed to the agreement. Then it's never mentioned again and the dispute is treated as if it had never occurred.
"I don't know in the U.S. if we could attain that type of forgive and forget mentality," Wolf said. "But as it has all over the world, the very seriousness of our conflict should make compromise possible."