Key Themes

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  1. Boundary-Crossing Problems
  2. Embracing Complexity
  3. Diplomacy as Negotiated Problem Solving
  4. One Framework, Three Uses
  5. Scales


Boundary-Crossing Problems. We argue that the most challenging contemporary water issues are boundary-crossing problems that arise when water moves between natural, political, and societal systems. In that sense, the term “boundary” does not refer exclusively to physical boundaries between natural systems, nor does it refer strictly to political boundaries between states or administrative units. It also refers to the cultural and sectoral boundaries that water crosses as it transforms from a polluted river into a sacred entity. Taken together, we find that as water crosses these natural, political, and societal boundaries, it often creates complex couplings between natural and human systems.


Embracing Complexity. The boundary-crossing nature of many contemporary water challenges leads to a complex coupling between natural and human systems. Roughly speaking, we are referring to the traditional distinction made between systems governed by invariant physical laws (natural systems) and those involving norms and behaviors (human systems). For all of human history, water has connected natural and human systems. However, in managing and governing water, we have primarily treated these as coexistent but separable concerns. A growing body of literature on the coupling of natural and human systems suggests this assumption of separability is misplaced and increasingly untenable.

With greater and greater frequency, scholars and practitioners are identifying phenomena that defy the dichotomous description of natural or human. These phenomena also resist description by parts: they cannot merely be “built up” from natural or societal components. In short, such phenomena are said to be emergent, a defining attribute of the behavior of complex systems, where cause-effect relationships are ambiguous and non-prospective, and predictive uncertainty is often broad and irreducible. The challenges posed by complex systems render many traditional problem-solving frames ineffective or even counterproductive. We argue that embracing this notion of complexity requires a negotiated approach to problem solving that is principled and pragmatic.


Diplomacy as Negotiated Problem Solving. Traditional problem-solving frameworks are adequate to address many simple or even complicated water problems where reasonable scientific certainty and consensus about appropriate interventions exist. However, many of our most challenging complex water problems arise in complex contexts that lack scientific certainty and societal consensus. Addressing these challenges often requires a negotiated approach to problem solving that involves interdisciplinary collaboration, fact-value deliberation, and joint fact-finding with a broad array of stakeholders. Since robust management in complex contexts requires ongoing re-evaluation and adaptation, these stakeholder collaborations must be sustained long after initial agreements are reached. Traditional reductionist and expert-led problem-solving frames are often inadequate and counterproductive in such situations. Water Diplomacy is a framework aimed at addressing this shortfall.

Water Diplomacy adopts a notion of diplomacy that extends beyond the official state-sanctioned diplomacy that happens in formal meetings and is inclusive of being diplomatic in the ordinary, local, and often informal circumstances in which water is contested. Here, diplomacy describes a negotiated approach to problem solving that is both principled and pragmatic. Water Diplomacy is principled because it rejects options that entail a compromise of values, it is pragmatic because it recognizes that actionable outcomes may entail compromises in interests, and it is negotiated because it identifies acceptable interventions through inclusive dialogue that allows values and interests to be discerned from stated positions. In this sense, Water Diplomacy adopts a middle path in addressing complex water problems, avoiding uncompromising dogma on the one hand and the uncontextualized application of science and technology on the other. It recognizes both the objectivity of scientific methods and the plurality of subjective interpretations while seeking actionable outcomes consistent with local capacities, constraints, and cultural values.


One Framework, Three Uses. We identify three different application contexts that have motivated the development and practice of the Water Diplomacy Framework.

  • Water Diplomacy finds its most immediate application when water is a source of conflict. For example, conflicting priorities for water use can lead to value conflicts, disproportionate harm borne by marginalized communities can create identity conflicts, and disagreement over water rights can lead to distributional conflicts. In these cases, Water Diplomacy is motivated by the notion that sustainable and equitable resolutions to these water conflicts can best be addressed through a negotiated problem-solving approach.
  • Water Diplomacy is also useful when water is an incentive for cooperation. Even in cases where water is not intrinsic to an ongoing conflict, introducing water-based incentives into negotiations can offer expanded opportunities for cooperation. Water is a flexible resource that is connected across sectors and subject to seasonally changing availability and demands. Creative options that leverage these factors can incentivize multi-party cooperation within larger peacebuilding processes or even in contexts where conflict is absent.
  • Water Diplomacy also provides foundational ideas for operationalizing adaptive water governance and management. Complex water challenges are rarely resolved with finality and often require an ongoing process of adaptive water management and governance. Such processes must often proceed in light of deep uncertainties about the future. Any shared vision for long-term adaptive management and governance must be attentive to a plurality of interests, values, and perspectives, and that navigating this pluralism requires the convergence of principles and pragmatism in an inclusive negotiated approach to problem solving.


Scales. Water Diplomacy is a framework for addressing complex water problems at multiple scales – from transboundary water conflicts, to distributional inequities within a state, to disputes between endangered fish and indigenous farmers. While providing a common framework, we expect that Water Diplomacy needs to be operationalized differently at different scales. In the handbook, we distinguish the transnational, subnational, and community scales. We use these scales to arrange our case studies and to contextualize scale-dependent factors that will be referenced in our topical chapters.