Fletcher Features

Avoiding Conflicts Over Water Rights - TuftsNow Profiles Prof. Shafiqul Islam

From farmers in California duking it out over water rights with growing urban populations to Middle Eastern countries squabbling over access to rivers and underground reservoirs, the need for water often leads to conflict.

Water-use issues are common—and likely to occur more frequently with population growth and climate change, says Shafiqul Islam, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts. What’s needed, he says, is not a technical solution for how to allocate water, but a negotiated one.

In a new book, Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks (Resources for the Future Press), Islam and co-author Lawrence Susskind of MIT argue that any resolution of water disputes needs to take into account the complex nature of the relationships of those clashing over the natural resource.

Water issues can be simple, complicated or complex, Islam says. A toilet, for example, is simple: combine a trip to Home Depot with some basic plumbing skills and you’re done. Pumping water from the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts 65 miles east to a 16th-floor apartment in Boston is complicated, but with some clever engineering, this too can be done. Creating the reservoir in the first place—that was complex. In the 1930s, the expanding population in the greater Boston area needed more water; so four towns were flooded and their residents displaced to create the Quabbin.

“Most difficulties in water negotiations are due to rigid assumptions about how water is allocated,” Shafiqul Islam says. “We’re saying, No, it’s not an allocation problem.” Policy and politics make water issues contentious. “In the past, we have focused on the social side or the natural side of water—we make regulations or build a dam—but we are saying in the book that they are coupled and continuously being spun by the politics of the time,” says Islam, who is also professor of water diplomacy at the Fletcher School. “You need to take all three—science, policy and politics—to create successful water networks.”

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