Linda Johnston: Water Resources Management and Conflict Transformation

Introducing Linda M. Johnston

Linda M. JohnstonLinda M. Johnston has obtained a PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from George Mason University (Fairfax, VA).

Her current position is Director of Master of Science in Conflict Management and The Center for Conflict Management at Kennesaw State University (Georgia, USA).

In the interview, Dr Johnston discusses how the presence of water affects conflicts, cooperation and power relations between countries. She als elaborates on the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management.

Interview

Note: The answers to these questions come from research conducted by Jorge Berrios-Allison, M.S. and Linda M. Johnston and will be covered more thoroughly in an upcoming paper: “Conflict Transformation and the Public Interest Ethos: Common Ground for Water Management and Water of Peace”. Please do not quote without the written consent of the authors.

Understanding Water Conflicts

What features of water explain its conflict potential?

Waterways are often also boundaries and, at the same time, waterways and watershed areas often span several social and political boundaries. As peoples, we must inevitably share water. Water is also vulnerable and finite; it is subject to pollution. As Axel Dourojeanni noted in 2001, one waterway can be impacted by more than 150 actors, from government agencies to groups of users. Water allocation and appropriation entails perceived incompatible goals and hence conflict. Waterways also undergo cycles of floods and droughts.

Why have violent conflicts about water resources been rare in human’s history?

Humans depend on water and it is a finite resource. The natural characteristic of water is that it is essential for life. End users tend to cooperate, perhaps out of their own experience that conciliation of interests instead of competition results in a more efficient use of water resources. Also, under most legal regimes, water resources are public goods.

What are “contextual power relationships” and why are they critical to understanding water conflicts?

Power relationships exist in all parts of the world. These groups interact relative to each other. When less powerful groups need to make their needs known, and they lack the legal means to do so, they have the option of resorting to other means to force the more powerful groups to negotiate. Also, less powerful groups often find themselves defined as a “needy” or a problem to be resolved.

Water Resources and Bilateral Relations

What factors determine whether shared water basins are beneficial or detrimental to the relations between the concerned countries?

Some of the factors which determine whether or not relations are good between political actors over shared waterways include: whether or not the actors already have mechanisms in place to deal with water issues as they arise, whether there are built-in obstacles to agreement, if full public involvement is difficult at a national level, and whether or not there is active commercial interaction among the peoples involved.

Why did India and Pakistan keep honoring their water agreements when they were at war with each other?

As Wolf pointed out in www.transboundarywaters.orst.edu, even when neighboring countries fought wars as was the case of India and Pakistan, they honored their water agreements. India kept making the required payments to Pakistan despite the ongoing fighting. They each depended upon the water for commercial reasons and they understood the necessity of keeping water agreements intact.

What role do the water resources on the West Bank play in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians?

In a similar way, as mentioned above, informal cooperation among Arab countries and Israel kept taking place through three wars. In these conflicts, there has been much more reason for agreement and cooperation than there has been for conflict and breaches of security.

Resolution and Management of Water Conflicts

What is the difference between conflict resolution and conflict management?

In the case of water conflicts, conflict management is often viewed through a legal and political lens, whereas conflict resolution is seen viewed through a social lens. Conflict resolution and conflict management processes can work together to formulate public policy and regulatory mechanisms, for the purpose of building sustainable development and sustainable peace around issues involving water.

What is Integrated Water Resources Management and what are its advantages?

Integrated Water Resources Management is a multi-level framework for an interdisciplinary dialogue which takes the best ideas from both the conflict management and conflict resolutions discussions. It can provide a framework whereby parties using conflict resolution and conflict management mechanisms can work alongside each other and recognize their common ground and opportunities for designing workable solutions for all involved.

Why are water resources considered public goods under most legal regimes?

In most states, water resources are within the domain of the State and are subject to public interest considerations. The natural characteristic of water as being essential for life, the environmental awareness of its finite quantity, and its vulnerability have made public interest topics such as appropriation, fair economic use, and its protection foremost in the minds of the public. The state is, in this case, functions to balance all the stakeholders’ interests in terms of the resource.

What lessons can be drawn from ancient approaches to water resource management?

Water management was one of the forces that drove civilization and served as a natural space to foster community links and gather people together. Cooperation over water and other natural resources meant more food. Sacred and continuous connections to land and water built community identities. Cooperation over water furthered communities more than fighting over water ever could have.

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