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Pre-Negotiation in Water Disputes Where Culture is Core

Water conflicts are slippery. They may appear to be primarily about the disposition of a natural resource; thus, functional bargaining, popularly referred to as "interest-based bargaining," may appear to be an effective process. However, lurking in the depths of many water conflicts is culture. If this key component is missed due to its relative obscurity or intangibility, technical solutions sought through functional or interest-based bargaining will rarely succeed. In fact, they may backfire as failed negotiations harden opposing positions. This suggests that a new approach to negotiating water conflicts is necessary. This article attempts to lay out one in which underlying cultural and human dimensions of water conflicts are surfaced through a prenegotiation process, making possible functional bargaining at later states.

The Dialectics of Water Conflicts

Conflicts over water are on the one hand simply about who gets to determine the use of this increasingly limited, tangible natural resource: the liquid gold of the 21st century. On the other hand, such conflicts are often a more complex confrontation between far less tangible cultural values and ways of life of respective riparians. In short, water conflicts are a dialectical phenomena between natural resources and human motivations: who gets what how? and why who wants what?

As stated in a recent USAID request for proposals (June 1995) on fostering resolution of water disputes in the Middle East, groups "attach profound cultural and spiritual significance to water (e.g. water as healer, cleanser, unifier, divider, creator, destroyer, originator and sustainer of all life, etc.). This creates deep-rooted, visceral feelings about water which do not engender strictly `rational' responses to engineered solutions (for example, human begins tend to want to have exclusive begins tend to want to have exclusive control over their water resources at any cost, even if that means a less reliable supply)."

Therefore, any effort to negotiate solutions to water disputes must carefully and appropriately balance the technological and human dimensions at stake.

Culture First

In water disputes, development professionals must proceed with great sensitivity to cultural factors in negotiating new arrangements over water. In this article I am using the term culture in the sense of the "hidden grammar" that lies beneath human actions. I view it as the source of a defined group's ideas, values, motivations, customs rules, priorities and patterns of behavior. Conflict resolution theories and methods potentially have much to contribute in determining at what stages in water negotiations and development projects the concrete and functional issues of disputants are best addressed, and at what stages the underlying human elements are best addressed.

As disputants seek to find new means of protecting and preserving their fast-dwindling and over-extended water supplies, history has shown that the best technical solutions founder on the rocks of cultural and political mistrust and animosity. For example, in the Middle East in the early 1950's, U.S. Presidential Envoy Eric Johnston labored intensively and, ultimately, fairly successfully to weave a set of technical agreements between Israelis and Arabs over water rights and usage. Despite the fact that sound technical agreements were initially reached, the core problems were not addressed. The deep-seated suspicions based on confrontations between cultures, values, identities and nations were the major obstacles to water disposition. Thus, while many sound technical solutions were articulated, agreements soon broke down over political animosity rooted in cultural contradictions and competition. For example, the Israelis viewed their settlement as returning "home," and natural resources as part of their heritage, while the Arabs viewed it as "usurping" of their birth-right and resources. In conflicts in which culture and identity are central, these concerns must be addressed first before any kind of technological or interest-based solutions will be possible.

The Human Dimension

How can intractable, identity-driven conflicts be made tractable? How can cultural issues be addressed in such a way as to allow more "rational" planning over resources and interests? One suggestion is to separate those human issues from the technological ones and address the latter first. For example, Roger Fisher and William Ury in the popular negotiation handbook, Getting to Yes, suggest that negotiators should separate people from their problem. It is a useful prescription for conflicts in which common concerns and shared definitions are already realized and problem-solving is therefore a joint activity. It is regularly not helpful nor possible at early stages of conflicts in which culture is central, and conflict parameters are somewhat fuzzy. In fact, attempting such a separation can be counter-productive as in the Johnston negotiations which, in the end, probably further hardened the disputants' animosity through failure.

Applying interest-based bargaining before a conflict is "ripe" can lead to negative consequences. When expectations are generated for good faith cooperation between adversaries, it is followed by a deepening of suspicion and animosity when negotiation breaks down. It can also lead to the real existential issues in a deep conflict never being adequately surfaced and explored, with solutions tending to temporarily paper over them.

Instead, articulation and definition of the cultural dimensions at the core of many resource conflicts-perhaps those based on water, in particular, given its symbolic resonane - is the necessary first step.


Existential or cultural conflicts are those conflicts fundamentally rooted in the identity and efficacy of the disputants, which have somehow been threatened or undermined in their encounter with each other. In such conflicts, stories and metaphors matter very much. They are ignored to the peril of any kind of constructive negotiation process. Storytelling can help to transform identity-based disputes into interest-based disputes. Put another way, by having disputants tell each other what really matters to them and why, culturally-based conflicts may be "ripened" or "softened" or "transformed" such that competing interests may be cooperatively negotiated.

The goal of cultural conflict discourse, or storytelling, must be first and foremost the articulation of disputants' organizing stories and metaphors, their core values, needs and concerns in such a way that the other side can recognize them (e.g., why water matters to each side so much and how their identities and cultures are based upon it). Once such a discourse (i.e., mutually story-telling) has occurred, it may well be in many cases that interest-based bargaining, including a partial separation of people from the issues, may be appropriate and useful.

Bryn Mawr Professor Marc Ross, in his book Culture and Conflict Management (1993), suggests that deep conflicts contain a mix of psychological and cultural factors and tangible interests. The more a conflict is in its psychocultural phase and parties' interpretations and attributions of each other exacerbate tensions, the more pre-negotiations is needed. Once the cultural elements have been adequately explored and new images constructed, including the possibility of inclusive metaphors (e.g., "we must learn to swim together if we are not to sink separately") if concrete problem-solving is needed to consolidate understandings and agreements, interest-based bargaining is then appropriate and often necessary. Once parties pre-negotiate some common ground over the basic parameters and definitions of their conflict, they can much more easily begin to build common ground over common technological solutions (such as appropriate use of development and irrigation policies, evaporation prevention technology, channeling, desalination and so forth, all of which require regional cooperation to be most effective).

The Aria Method

As is evident from the history of the Jordan water dispute and its relationship to the Arab Israeli conflict, cultural factors may stimulate conflict and/or impede its resolution. Culture, like conflict, is highly reflexive. It is shaped and reshaped in its encounters with other cultures. While cultural encounters can and do have deleterious effects on negotiation, it is possible for a "cultural" approach to be employed consciously to assist adversaries in resolving their disputes.

In an effort to suggest concretely how culture may be used to promote cooperation over water issues, which may, in turn, encourage a consolidation of efforts for peace at the political level, in this section I briefly summarize a conflict resolution metholodology employed and developed primarily in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Over the last decade through my personal interventions as a conflict resolution trainer and facilitator between Israelis and Palestinians, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, disputants in South Africa, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka, I have evolved a four-phased dialogue process called the "ARIA method" for ripening culturally-rooted conflicts for functional problem-solving. In the first Adversarial phase, Parties focus on resources that they want and blame each other for the conflict. In the second Reflexive phase, they articulate why they want a given outcome based on their own values, needs, hopes, and fears in the conflict situation. In the third Integrative phase, parties work cooperatively to solve common problems which will address underlying motivations of both sides. Finally, they cooperatively set an Agenda for negotiation and/or problem-solving.

What follows is a conceptual overview of this methodology with reference to its possible application to the water dispute between Arabs and Israelis.

i. Adversarial Framing - The history of the Arab-Israeli water conflicts are replete with examples of adversarial conflict framing. "This water is ours; you intrude." Each side has long blamed the other for usurping their legitimate water resources and for rejecting their legitimacy. They play out this deaf dialogue through the conventional articulation of opposing national interests and competition over resources like water, perpetuating attributional and ethnocentric biases in which each views the other as inherently aggressive and culturally inferior. This type of outward adversarial focus, in which disputants see "the other" as the main problem, is the norm in intense conflicts, and culture militates parties against one another by promoting ethnocentric and exclusionary perceptions. This pattern can be found wherever ethnic groups are engaged in deep, identity-related conflict, outwardly articulated and expressed in terms of rivalry for control of tangible territorial, economic, and/or military resources, and for a monopoly over international support to which the less tangible "cultural" issues of identity and recognition are intimately connected. Such an approach perpetuates fruitless negotiation at best, and at worst promotes repeated outbursts of violence.

ii. Reflexive Reframing - To break the cycle of adversarial conflict framing and solution seeking, a reflective telling of self can serve as a powerful vehicle for reframing. In other words, changing the way parties define their conflict, from an outward view of it to an inward-looking analysis, can broaden significantly their analyses of the conflict. By describing reflexicely their deepest motivations, traumas, hopes, and fears in the context of past and potential interactions, parties any begin to forge common ground and move beyond blaming. "Water represents our past and future, we need it to be free, secure and ourselves."

Reflexivity is particularly effective in dialectical conflicts since it is a process by which interrelationships between internal dynamics (i.e., culture) and external conditions (i.e., water constraints) are articulated. It leads disputants to inquire, interactively, into their respective values, needs, hopes and hurts. The other side is provided with a window onto their opponents' reality from which mutual awareness can be engendered of the causality they share over such core concerns-past and future-and the way they are expressed and organized (i.e., via competition over water resources).

A reflextive approach would begin with an exposition of self. "Our experience at the hands of adversaries, including you, but surely not limited to you, has threatened our culture and our values, undermined our well-being, and led us to feel a profound sense of injury, insecurity, and mistrust. Water is a new frontier in this struggle." When parties in protracted conflict describe reflexively their motivations and the assumptions on which they act in the conflict situation and illuminate the "cultural" dimensions at play, constructive dialogue and intercultural encounter become possible.

For a a tangible solution to be mutually acceptable, it must address disputants' underlying concerns, including needs for identity, safety, recognition, justice, participation, and so forth. The extent to which past or future proposals for water use in the Middle East address these sorts of existential concerns may play an important role in determining whether they will be accepted and implemented. If solutions threaten or frustrate these deep concerns further, it is likely that they, as in the past, will be rejected.

The reflexive approach serves to unfreeze parties from total reliance n the adversarial "us versus them" mode and provides room for a more integrative mode. The underlying concerns for identity and cultural integrity have been underrepresented far too long in diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. Bringing such issues into focus within the context of concrete, practical issues, such as access to water resources, may have a constructive effect on an overall peace process. If encouraged to articulate underlying concerns that are at stake in the conflict, parties would make more progress in spelling out what must be addressed for a mutually acceptable solution to be forged. In their book The Practical Negotiator, William Zartman and Maureen Berman (1982, p. 84) write, "Issues of recognition, of dignity, of acceptance, of rights and justice may be more important than the actual disposition of a material good, and taking them into account may facilitate a solution."

In reflexive dialogue, disputants reframe their perceptions and analyses of each other and their own identities. Where blame was, mutual responsibility enters. Where "Us versus Them" dynamics prevailed, the way in which the disputants are locked into relationship and, in part, defined by it becomes both clear and potentially constructive with a new use of "We." Where negative attributions clouded all differentiation of the other, a new analytical empathy may emerge in which they are viewed as, at least partially, "like self" in certain deeply motivated needs and values (for safety, dignity, recognition and so forth). Finally, where pernicious projections were entrenched, a new awareness of disputants' own imperfections are acknowledged and accepted, promoting a less self-righteous or judgmental battle and more tolerance for failings of the other side as well.

By shifting emphasis to common cultural concerns and relating them, where appropriate, to technical issues within the larger political conflict, the likelihood of successful joint problem-solving is enhanced.

iii. Integrative Inventing - After parties have described their reflexive analyses of the situation, they are asked to find the intersections of their underlying concerns. "Each of us seeks to sit under [and water] our own fig tree." This discovery then leads to an attempt at integrative bargaining, in which they are asked to invent cooperative solutions to their common problem (insecurity, poverty, threats to cultural identity, resource scarcity and so forth).

Just as water has been a source of conflict and competition in the past in the Middle East, it holds much promise as a vehicle for functional cooperation in the future. As Israeli political commentator, Ze'ev Schiff, wrote in "Ha'aretz" on June 7, 1995:

In the negotiations with the Syrians, the water issue is more important than topographical questions, or when an Israeli embassy will be established in Damascus. The water issue must be seen as absolutely critical. If it is not satisfactorily settled, it will constitute a pretext for difficult conflicts and wars in the future. But it is also an issue which allows for beneficial regional cooperation, and as such, a good reason for preventing wars.

Integrative solutions-where all sides gain mutually (if not symmetrically), sacrifice (often asymmetrically) - are those that all parties to a conflict are committed to internally. This internal commitment is due to parties' sense that they gain from such solutions and, perhaps more importantly, because it can be demonstrated to fulfilling their underlying needs. Disputing parties become motivated to "help" the other side achieve certain goals because of the gains they can envision for themselves through such cooperation. For instance, insecurity or poverty of either side might be viewed as a concrete problem for both. In feeling insecure, each side often will act in ways that will lead the other side to feel insecure as well.

iv. Cooperative Agenda Setting - Having built confidence that peaceful cooperation is possible, and by seeing partial examples of how cooperative problem-solving might benefit them, parties have now developed internal incentives to foster further cooperation. By articulating common frustrations and perceived threats, an agenda for joint problem-solving is set. This agenda can be both incrmental and holistic at the same time. It can be designed to work on "pieces of peace" in ways that sybolically and practically are part of a total fabric of peace. Thus, as they set a substantive agenda for addressing concrete issue,s such as use and preservation of water resources, they may now work together to set a procedural agenda for negotiation that will engender a cooperative momentum.


Water conflicts, while slippery indeed, provide a valuable opportunity for conflict management. Functionalists and negotiation specialists alike have suggested that addressing such resource issues may be a way to bridge gaps between adversaries through a shared focus on overarching concerns. They re only partially correct when it comes to water disputes. Many such disputes, as in the Middle East, are rooted in cultural issues which must be addressed first if room is to be made for interest-based or functional bargaining and cooperation. While lurking in the depths of many water conflicts is culture, it may become a lubricator instead of a sink-hole. If this key component is emphasized due to new awareness of its centrality, generated for example during the kind of reflexive discourse between disputants proposed above, room may indeed be fostered for sound technical solutions sought through functional or interest-based bargaining. Such solutions in turn may help to further foster confidence that cooperation and mutual gains may be possible as hardened opposing positions begin to soften.

The ARIA method briefly illustrated above might be usefully applied to pre-negotiating concrete environmental disputes like those over water. It proposes a process by which underlying cultural and human dimensions of resource conflicts are surfaced and explored, making possible functional bargaining at later stages. When underlying cultural issues are reflexively articulated, the parties might well be in a forward motion for seeking cooperative solutions to their shared resource dilemmas. Interest-based bargaining may be initially misplaced as culture is the real obstacle to water solutions that last. In addressing culture first, interest-based bargaining over water access may become usefull and necessary for functionally consolidating parties new recognition and acceptance of each other.

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