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Oregon Professor Discusses Water Conflict

By Emilia Williamson

Water UCI, a campus-wide initiative designed to build a community around water and collaborate on scientific questions relating to technology, management and policy, held an event featuring distinguished scholar-in-residence Aaron T. Wolf on March 3.

Wolf is a Ph.D professor from Oregon State University who specializes in international water conflict resolution as well as geography and environmental science. He has served as a consultant for the US Department of State, US Agency for International Development and has authored many influential books.

Dr. Wolf’s lecture, titled “Healing the Enlightenment Rift: Rationality, Spirituality & Shared Waters,” focused on the statistics of water conflict, different methods of facilitation, mediation and studying conflict and anger solutions across different faith traditions around the world.

He started his lecture by explaining the definition of water conflict. Throughout the world, shared watersheds are usually not considered geographically, but rather through political boundaries. Water conflicts are often fought between people who live in close proximity but are separated by city-state lines, usually driven by uncoordinated development or internationalized basins. When solving conflicts, Wolf states that “You have to consider both political and also geographical borders.”

Many have predicted that wars in the 21st century will be fought over water resources, but Dr. Wolf gave evidence as to why this has not been the case so far.

“Let’s take the Middle East,” he said. “How is water shared across these very hostile boundaries?”

He explained that, contrary to popular belief, there have been tensions, but no military or political violence over water in the area.

Wolf and his team examined all instances of two countries making agreements or decisions over water from the past 60 years.

“There are 1,800 documented instances of countries doing something over water, and two-thirds of the time we do anything over water, we cooperate.”

He continued to say that about 80 percent of conflict was solely verbal conflict, mostly arising from politicians trying to sell news of conflict to the media.

“Although these conflicts result in tension, threats and unappealing scenarios, our record overwhelmingly shows that we get along,” he concluded.

In his experience, in mediation, many people ignore his solutions and insist that they have to fight. “The issue is never the issue,” he reports. “It’s not about the water but it’s about their history, ethnicity and cultural differences.”

A main factor in getting groups to agree is making them realize that, no matter their differences, people always have a common interest. “No matter what the situation you are in, no matter whatever or whoever you are, you share something,” Wolf argued.

Dr. Wolf then explained that, surprisingly enough, enlightenment and spirituality account for half of what he does. He clarifies that spirituality does not concern religion, but is rather a sense of connection between humans and a divine grace. He claims that in the western world, people are not used to talking about spirituality in terms of conflict or science,

“But as good scientists, we have to consider it, because it plays a large part in how other cultures go about solving conflicts. As a scientist, you go where the evidence goes.”

Dr. Wolf has also studied the ancient Jewish Kabbalah of Conflict of divine consciousness, which focuses on three spheres of understanding: Din holds justice and self, which relates to laws, rules and our private lives; Chesed, which is mercy, community and spirituality; and Rachamim which means compassion. Wolf noted that these concepts are universal.

“If you are Christian, replace these with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; there is Yin Yang in Taoism, the Buddhist deity Shiva and her three eyes and even the Nash Equilibrium graph in science.”

In terms of putting these concepts into practice for water conflict resolution, he explains that in the rest of the world the three spheres are balanced. “In the ‘enlightened west’ we resolve conflicts by mainly focusing on justice; we lock people up and put away the key.” In other countries, conflict is treated as a community issue, and spirituality is always a component of their resolution.

Dr. Wolf explains that, when working with others to resolve a conflict, we must open both eyes and practice “deep listening from the heart,” asking yourself what you can learn from their argument rather than closing yourself off with anger. With today’s world becoming increasingly split on issues, he proposes that “There are at least two different ways to see the world.”

Wolf says that all humans are connected through the necessity and human right of having access to water. Water is used for physical needs and survival, religious ceremonies and spiritual needs and also economic goods such as irrigation, dams and industrial agriculture. Although water conflict is often manifested as a political issue, it is much more than that.

“Science is a great place to start, but it’s not the whole story,” said Wolf.

He concluded by reminding audience members to be tolerant and open minded when reasoning with one another.