Aaron Wolf | An Island Press Author

Aaron T. Wolf

Aaron T. Wolf is a Professor of Geography in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University. His research and teaching focus is on the interaction between water science and water policy, particularly as related to conflict prevention and resolution. He has acted as a consultant to the World Bank and several international government agencies on various aspects of transboundary water resources and dispute resolution. Wolf is a trained mediator/facilitator, and directs the Program in Water Conflict Management and Transformation, through which he has offered workshops, facilitations, and mediation in basins throughout the world. He coordinates the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, and is a co-director of the Universities Partnership on Transboundary Waters. He has been an author/editor for seven books, as well as almost 50 journal articles, book chapters, and professional reports on various aspects of transboundary waters.

Busting the "Water Wars" Myth

Oregon State University’s Aaron Wolf, in his studies of conflict and cooperation around international waterways, has found something both counter-intuitive and remarkable. Despite myths of “water...

Oregon State University’s Aaron Wolf, in his studies of conflict and cooperation around international waterways, has found something both counter-intuitive and remarkable. Despite myths of “water wars,” cooperation is far more common than conflict when neighbors share a river and an aquifer, according to Wolf, author of the new Island Press book The Spirit of Dialogue.

This goes beyond simply cooperating over water. “Once cooperative water regimes are established…,” Wolf wrote in a 1999 essay, “they turn out to be tremendously resilient over time, even between otherwise hostile … states, and even as conflict is waged over other issues.”

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Lake Mead as seen from the Hoover Dam with the white band clearly showing the high water level, via Wikimedia Commons

Wolf’s point was put strikingly on display last month at a meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as representatives of the Unites States and Mexico gathered for a formal signing ceremony of an agreement over sharing the waters of the Colorado River.

The Colorado River is often described as being shared among seven states, but the number is really nine—seven in the United States and two in Mexico. U.S. farms and cities use most of the river’s water, and what little is left when it arrives at the U.S.-Mexico border near the towns of Algodones and San Luis is diverted for use by Mexican farms and cities. The last hundred miles of river channel between the border and the Sea of Cortez is usually dry.

The agreement includes provisions for the two nations to share shortages if (when?) drought and climate change shrink the river. The deal gives Mexican water users the ability to store their water in Lake Mead, the massive storage reservoir behind Hoover Dam on the Arizona-Nevada border, near the city of Las Vegas. Storage is critical to give Mexico flexibility in managing its water. U.S. water agencies will contribute under the deal to water efficiency improvements to Mexican infrastructure, with some of the saved water available for use in the United States.

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Satellite view of the Colorado River valley near Yuma, Arizona; the Mexico–United States border runs from left to right just below center, via Wikimedia Commons

Crucially, the agreement also sets aside water for habitat restoration in the dry river channel of Mexico.

The agreement was negotiated over a more than two-year period, but it is really rooted in more than a decade of increasingly deep collaboration between a community of water managers on both sides of the border. When the Trump administration took over in January, there was fear that the carefully crafted deal, so beneficial and important to communities on both sides of the border, would be sidelined by the heated rhetoric over free trade and immigration, over NAFTA and walls. But Wolf was right. Even as conflict raged over other issues, the trust and reciprocity built around the Colorado River proved remarkably resilient. The old saw that “water is for fighting over” was proven wrong again.

#ForewordFriday: Transforming Conflict Edition

Debate surrounding the proposed repeal of the controversial Clean Water Rule is just one example of how competing...

Debate surrounding the proposed repeal of the controversial Clean Water Rule is just one example of how competing interests tend to drive our approach to environmental conflicts. As we strive to balance environmental protections with economic development and respect for indigenous populations, strategies for finding common ground may come from an unexpected place—religion.

In The Spirit of Dialogue, trained mediator and scientist Aaron Wolf shows how ideas from faith traditions can pave the way toward successful conflict prevention, transformation, and resolution. Drawing on his experience mediating water conflicts for the World Bank and 12 years of travel and research, Wolf engages religion not for the purpose of dogma, but for the practical process of mediation.

Lucy Moore, author of Common Ground on Hostile Turf said The Spirit of Dialogue “brings the reader to the negotiating table to witness breakthroughs that seem inexplicable. But within the frameworks of philosophy, cosmology, and religion, we begin to see inside these mysteries of human behavior and appreciate the power within ourselves and each other to achieve the unlikely.”

Check out an excerpt from the book below.