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<xTITLE>More Water Diplomacy</xTITLE>

More Water Diplomacy

by Larry Susskind
June 2011

From Larry Susskind's blog on the Consensus Building Approach

Larry Susskind

Thirty-one senior water professionals from 17 countries attended the recent Water Diplomacy Workshop sponsored by Tufts University and MIT. We heard about cross-border water disputes happening all over the world -- conflicts not just between countries, but between parts of the same country. [Stories about all these disputes will soon be available in something called the Aquapedia -- a global wiki that invites everyone involved in water disputes to describe them using a simple pre-made, easy-to-complete template. The hope is that ideas and lessons gathered in one place will be helpful elsewhere.]

There's a lot written about water management, mostly from an engineering perspective. There's not so much written from a negotiation standpoint. And, there's precious little that merges the two. The Water Diplomacy Framework begins with a series of assumptions about societal, political and natural forces including water supply, water demand, the costs of new infrastructure, levels of economic development, governance arrangements, cultural norms, and public participation traditions. The Workshop teaches the participants to anticipate the complex interactions among these “nodes” using tailored role-play simulations.

Four key assumptions were at the heart of the train-the-trainer program (that will be offered again in June 2012):

Water is a not a fixed resource: Traditionally, water has been managed as if it were a fixed or a scarce resource -- allocating gains to some and losses to others. But when viewed properly, water can be an expandable resource, it can even be the key to peace-building rather than warfare. The key is to pool all available technical knowledge (about desalination or recycling, for instance) and convince the parties to engage in joint problem-solving. Also, virtual water (i.e. water embedded in wasteful methods of agricultural and industrial production) can be managed more creatively to relieve water shortages. Water conflicts are triggered when the parties fail to think about water as an expandable resource.

Water networks are open not closed: Traditional “systems engineering” represents the interconnections among political, social and natural nodes as if they are neatly bounded. This is rarely the case. Also, this approach only works when cause-effect relationships among the nodes are well understood and complexity can be minimized. In most boundary crossing situations, however, water network boundaries are wide open and relationships among the nodes are extremely complex.

Water network management must take account of uncertainty: Resource managers have tried for many years to model water systems. Once they have a model, they make a forecast. However, in the complex world of water networks, there is too much uncertainty to make such forecasts with any confidence. The emergence of climate change, for example, has already altered rainfall patterns, storm intensity and the height of the oceans in completely unpredictable ways. There are tools for managing resources in the face of uncertainty, but these are quite different from the usual modeling and forecasting tools.

The management of water network needs to be adaptive and reflect a “value- creating” approach to negotiation: The Water Diplomacy Framework urges political leaders to ensure that appropriate representatives of all relevant stakeholders are involved in decisions that affect them. Negotiations among these actors should use value- creating techniques rather than positional bargaining. This requires linking decisions about water to other things (like economic development, food production and energy efficiency).

The Water Diplomacy Framework assumes the future is not knowable (or easily estimated). Therefore, a step-by- step approach, including a major investment in monitoring and re-evaluation is required.

If you want to join the Water Diplomacy network, check out In a few weeks, you’ll be able to interact on line with the participants at the recent Workshop.


Lawrence Susskind was born in New York City in 1947. He graduated from Columbia University in 1968 with a B.A. in English Literature and Sociology. He received his Masters of City Planning from MIT in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Urban Planning from MIT in 1973. 

Professor Susskind joined the faculty of the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning in 1971. He served first as Associate Head and then as Head of that Department from 1974 through 1982. He was appointed full professor in 1986 and Ford Professor of Urban & Environmental Planning in 1995. As head of the Environmental Policy Group in the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, he currently teaches four courses (Negotiation and Dispute Resolution in the Public Sector (11.255), International Environmental Negotiation (11.364) taught jointly with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Multi-party Negotiation (11.257) taught jointly with Harvard Law School, and Use of Joint Fact-Finding in Science-Intensive Policy Disputes (11.941)), oversees a research budget of approximately $250,000 annually, and supervises more than a dozen masters and doctoral dissertations a year.

From 1982-1985, Professor Susskind served as the first Executive Director of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School -- an inter-university consortium for the improvement of theory and practice in the field of dispute resolution. He currently holds an appointment at Harvard as Vice-Chair for Instruction, and Director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School. Professor Susskind is responsible for an extensive series of action-research projects, the training of senior executives, and serves on the Editorial Board of Negotiation Journal and as head of the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation. He has developed more than fifty simulations (distributed by the Clearinghouse at the Program on Negotiation) that are used to teach negotiation, dispute resolution, and consensus building throughout the world. 

Professor Susskind is one of the country's most experienced public and environmental dispute mediators and a leading figure in the dispute resolution field. He has mediated more than fifty complex disputes related to the siting of controversial facilities, the setting of public health and safety standards, the formulation and implementation of development plans and projects, and conflicts among racial and ethnic groups -- serving on occasion as a special court-appointed master.

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