Natural Security Blog: Post

Events from Around Town: Drowning in Conflict

Yesterday I made the short walk from the CNAS office to the Woodrow Wilson Center to catch the Environmental Change and Security Program’s most recent event, Water, Conflict, and Cooperation: Practical Concerns for Water Development Projects. The briefing consisted of three main speakers: Jason Gehrig, a consultant and engineer for Catholic Relief Services, and author of the event’s focal piece, Water and Conflict: Incorporating Peacebuilding into Water Development; William E. Hall, a professor  in Georgetown University’s Conflict Resolution Program; and S. Tjip Walker, a team leader within the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Conflict Management and Mitigation unit on Warning and Analysis. 

Gehrig began the discussion with a brief outline of Water and Conflict, in which he brought to light the greatest hurdle in resolving water conflicts (complete with catchy alliteration): looking beyond the “tubes and tanks.” To be brief, Gehrig suggested that the international community look beyond the physical structures necessary to provide access to water, and rather examine the social networks that are built up around them. 

As I listened to the nearly two hours of dialogue that followed, this idea of seeing past the tangible structures required for access to water proved to be at the core of each speaker’s account.  Hall’s short blur of flow charts and bar graphs on the specifics of environmental conflict resolution, for example, boiled down to social constructs which determine who uses a resource, how they use it, and other such governances.

While the event got in depth on topics of conflicts within and among villages, it missed the opportunity to discuss the implications of water, and other so-called “common-pool resources,” on the international level.  It was often alluded to, as various panelists made mention of the “or worse” scenario which might arise in the absence of resolution of smaller-scale conflicts. In one notable exception, Walker spoke of his projections for the future, specifically that water is currently a precious commodity and will only become more desirable in the future due to climatic changes.  What he seemingly urged the event’s audience to consider was the resilience for global communities to adapt in response to a changing environment, seeming to evoke the famous words of Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm, “life, uh. . . finds a way.”

While the crowd, which had filled the capacity of the rather large room and then some, seemed at times skeptical (vocally so at times), the general approach of tubes and tanks being constructed along with hands-on social mediation seemed to sell.  The panel, having successfully mitigated a potential ideological conflict in a room full of interested, informed and opinionated parties, seemed  to promise a hopeful outlook for the resolution of water-based conflicts.

You can watch C-SPAN’s recording of the event here.

Events from Around Town


Daniel, Thanks for coming


Thanks for coming yesterday and taking the time blog on the event. Expand more on the global level if you would. Fresh water only (the focus of our discussion) or also oceans? One of the big challenges for fresh water is obviously the globally relevant but often place specific in terms of conditions and how we institutionally organize ourselves to manage it. So as opposed to climate, ozone etc where the global is necessary, the global water regime is harder to imagine. As the CRS report suggests, there is the water as a human right angle, but that doesn't go terribly far in tangible institutional commitments. There is certainly the strong transboundary dynamic in the water conflict context and there was a little of that yesterday. Definitely could have been more but that isn't a strong CPR dynamic. So tell us more about what you would like to see in the water and conflict discussion so we can better account for it in future programming. And again, thanks for attending and commenting on the session.

Best, Geoff Dabelko
Wilson Center

Geoff, Thanks for your


Thanks for your question. I have a tendency to hearken back to my studies at The Ohio State University where I focused heavily on the Middle East and Arabic, so I was interested in learning more about interstate dysfunction. A couple of issues that I was eager to hear discussed include the variety of disputes that the region has experienced in regards to water, as well as their varied outcomes, for example the economic and agricultural turmoil in Afghanistan and Iran due to the lack of transboundary cooperation over the water resources of the Sistan Basin over the past decade or the recent peaceful de-escalation of Turkey’s dam project with Iraq and Syria. I’ve also been reading more about battles over water rights (among many other things) between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which the 2009 U.N. Environment Programme publication From Conflict to Peacebuilding points to as an opportunity to bring the Palestinian and Israeli authorities into a dialogue. I think it is fair to note that the event was a reflection on the work done by Catholic Relief Services and thus would tend to bring the scope of discussion to the local level, a fact which I now appreciate. Water is a fascinating resource in that it serves as both a unifier and divider. Being new to the field, I look forward to digging more into the Wilson Center’s past work on these issues. Thanks for your response!

Best wishes, Daniel

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