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The Q&A: Aaron Wolf

In this week's Q&A, we interview Aaron Wolf, a professor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

Aaron Wolf is a professor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. 

With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week’s subject.

Aaron Wolf is a professor of geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. He directs the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation and has served as consultant to the State Department and World Bank. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Water: What is water conflict management?

Aaron Wolf: Any body of water has multiple users and needs. It’s a truism in the water world that water management is conflict management — there’s never enough for everybody and everything. So having these dialogues about how to successfully and efficiently manage the resources among all the users and uses oftentimes centers on working through conflict.

Trib+Water: Where do you see these water conflicts?

Wolf: There are some 310 watersheds that are shared by two or more countries and that’s about half the land surface of the Earth. And there are another 500 aquifers that are shared by two or more countries, and so the problem of one country developing or building a structure like a dam that impacts another country is one that’s really common and increasing.

Sometimes that’s done cooperatively with other countries in the basin, and very often it’s not. We’ve seen recently in Central Asia, upstream countries on both the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya have built structures that have impacted downstream countries.

On the Nile Basin, Ethiopia is building a major dam on the Blue Nile that will have impacts in downstream Sudan and Egypt. There have been tensions there. On the Mekong River, Laos in particular has been building a number of structures for hydropower that have impacts throughout the region.

Trib+Water: How does climate change impact this work?

Wolf: The climate impact is in particular areas. For example here in the Pacific Northwest, historically we’ve relied on a snowpack to store our water until we need it in the summer for irrigation. With less snow and more rain, we start looking for more storage.

For the first time in some 30 years, we’re looking at potentially building new dams and thinking about how we would store the water for our needs. Those conversations are happening around the world. In the Himalayas, for example, it’s the same thing with less snow and more rain.

In some places, there’s simply less precipitation or the temperatures are just hotter — the whole Middle East and the U.S. Southwest right now are really hot. Those are the kinds of things that impact agriculture and growing seasons.

Trib+Water: What is the process for conflict mediation?

Wolf: There are three steps at three different scales. One is at a global scale: we try and keep track of changes in population or in economic growth. And we do this to try and come up with some semblance of an early warning, looking three to five years down the line to where tensions might break out in the future.

And so when we then look at those, oftentimes partners — either the U.S. State Department, or UN agencies, or the World Bank — are interested in promoting dialogue in advance of these crisis moments. Once the crisis is in place, it’s much harder to step back and resolve an existing criss than it is to prevent one to begin with.

So that’s one scale, mapping out the early warning hot spots. The second is then to work with partners when we can to help them design a process — who needs to be in the room, what are the different sets of interests of everybody at the table, who would support a process of dialogue.

Then the third scale is what happens in the room — how do people talk to each other over water, how do they listen to each other, how do they go from 'everybody in the room wants more water' to thinking about interests and ideally the shared values that are underlying most of these processes.

Trib+Water: What are the most pressing challenges in water mediation?

Wolf: Within the U.S. I think our biggest issue is development, cities growing, population growing. That process is happening in parallel with increasing awareness of the environment and environmental needs. In parallel to that there are two other kind of drivers: one is increasing recognition of tribal rights and treaty obligations to tribes and also an obligation to the public for public participation. And those four coalesce around an increasing need to have these multi-stakeholder dialogues around different waterways.

Internationally, I think similarly it’s development, but the development is very different. In the U.S. West and in the developed world, we’ve pretty much built all of our dams and all of our dam sites. In the developing world there’s quite a lot of dam building going on and that’s really disruptive on both populations and on ecosystems — and then as a consequence it’s very stressful on international relations.

So I think the general dynamic is very similar but the drivers are a little but different.

Trib+Water: How do political changes affect your work?

Wolf: At a human level, it doesn’t really make much difference. There’s a rich history of people throughout the U.S. West coming together to talk about water across political spectrums. People generally love their waterways, they love their water resources and rely on them for so much — from food supply and cattle grazing to environmental needs.

That’s the kind of language that brings people into the room. Once we elevate the conversation, over and over you’ll find agreements across political spectrum, across economic spectrums, really across the kinds of things that are dividing the rest of the country.

And I think that will survive regardless of the politics at the national or state level.

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