Resolving complex water conflicts involving stakeholder communities


In negotiations over the use of water resources, a zero-sum approach (meaning gains to one party are always balanced by losses to others) is generally taken. However, if the stakeholders in (boundary crossing) water projects set as their goal that they ought to try to meet the objectives of the various stakeholders simultaneously, there is a chance they will be able to invent ingenious ways of stretching resources or using the same resources in a number of different ways so that the interests of all parties can be met. How to do this is discussed in Dealing with complex water negotiations: adopting a non-zero sum approach.

Kamminga, Cecchi Dimeglio and Susskind explain why agreements over water can best be achieved by organizing informal problem-solving forums that enable water users and water network managers to move from zero-sum to non-zero sum thinking. They use actual examples in which these techniques have been applied. They describe how such problem-solving forums ought to be organized and how to increase the chances they will be successful.

The paper argues how informal problem-solving, providing some place-specific modifications may work anywhere in the world, and outline the role that trained mediators or facilitators can play in assisting managers in shifting from competitive, zero-sum thinking to cooperative efforts to create value.

The article answers the following questions:

  • What are the special attributes of boundary-crossing water negotiations that sometimes make value creation so difficult?
  • If the zero-sum approach to negotiation often leads to sub-optimal outcomes, why do so many water professionals rely on it?
  • What are the keys to creating value in informal problem-solving forums?
  • What are the most important tactics or techniques for generating mutually advantageous results through value creation?
  • What is the added value of involving trained intermediaries in informal problem- solving efforts in the water sector?

 In water allocation disputes there are multiple stakeholders involved (directly or indirectly). Sometimes, vast numbers of people—with what appear to be diametrically opposed interests—will be affected by decisions about the choice of water use, quality standards or allocation rules. Private parties, including the shipping sector, harbor authorities, agricultural, tourist or energy industries, see themselves competing for a share of an often limited ‘water-pie.’ In addition, environmental advocates and local residents make claims that appear to contradict those of private or corporate stakeholders.

The level of complexity in water management projects, however, is often too high for negotiators to proceed in their usual off-the-cuff manner. If some effort isn’t made to anticipate the likely difficulties and involve the parties in the design of a well-crafted negotiation process, they are likely to lock in on positions that inevitably result in stalemate. Thus, it is essential to invest in a pre-negotiation activities that will ensure (1) the right parties are at the table; (2) the parties are well prepared, and, in particular that they have canvassed their internal stakeholders; (3) the parties have agreed to a timetable, ground rules, an agenda and whatever joint fact-finding is necessary.

The article uses a number of examples as case studies to analyze what often goes wrong and how to deal with the challenges. They include The Green Acres Project in Orange County, Irvine Ranch Water District in Southern California, The Mekong River Basin in South-East Asia, and the Danube River Basin in Europe.

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