4th Water and Peace Seminar: Emotions and human relations key to water diplomacy

Written by Bhavna Bhasin, on 17 March 2022

Science often has been considered to be a purely objective pursuit, with no place for emotions and subjective explorations. It was thought to be reserved for dispassionate, hyper-rational observers of nature, an approach born in the lap of strict western dichotomies that tend to marginalize non-western, non-binary models of thinking and being. This narrow view limited how we see, understand and engage with the world. It disregards factors like trust, beliefs, emotions and values, all of which play a significant role in water diplomacy and water conflict resolution. However, there are scholars determined to broaden the perspective of science to benefit water diplomacy solutions.

“I have tenure, so I can say all this”, quipped Professor Aaron Wolf, an IHE Delft Professor of Water Cooperation and Diplomacy,at IHE Delft’s 4th Water and Peace Seminar, held 8-9 March 2022 at the Humanity Hub in The Hague. His jesting comment hinted at the peripheral and professionally-lethal status such discussions have been given in the past.

In his keynote speech, he urged seminar participants - water experts, academics, mediators, artists and diplomats - to look beyond the seemingly rational, the measurable; to step away from western models of cognition and engage with communal and indigenous ideas of mediation. He highlighted examples such as Singapore’s community-focused kampung spirit and the Arab dispute-resolution model called Sulha.

The 63 participants in the hybrid event discussed the affective dimensions of water conflict and cooperation. Dutch Foreign Ministry Senior Policy Adviser (Water) Aart van der Horst, reflected on the need for the water sector to invest in cross-sectoral communication in his opening speech. IHE Delft Rector Prof. Eddy Moors quoted the lyrics of the song “The Power of Water,” performed as an interval act at the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest, held in Rotterdam: “For some it flows, for some it drips; but most of us get none of it. To those in need of only a little sip: I'd cry a river just for you, so you can feed your children too - if all of us would give a little bit,” as a reminder that for many, water is a matter of daily survival rather than an academic topic. 

Love and faith

The sessions explored topics including emotions, spirituality, gender, indigenous knowledges and art. The speakers – a mix of academics and practitioners – addressed these issues partly from theoretical and conceptual perspectives, and partly with concrete examples how emotions or spirituality can support conflict resolution around water. Emotions affect, and are affected by, discourses and narratives at a national level that speak to people as a collective, but also impact concrete practices in negotiations.

The personal is political

“All relations between states or organizations are ultimately relations between people,” said seminar organizer Jenniver Sehring, IHE Delft Senior Lecturer in Water Governance and Diplomacy.

Practitioners from several river basins discussed how personal relations between decision-makers – characterized by trust or mistrust, by sympathy or animosity or somewhere between - affect water conflict and cooperation. Others highlighted art, music and video projects as examples of creative activities that have strengthened personal bonds and mutual understanding in transboundary river basin contexts. 

“The Water and Peace Seminar series focuses on issues important for improving our understanding of the political dynamics around conflict and cooperation on transboundary waters, and for crafting adequate water diplomacy strategies,” Sehring said. “At this seminar, we explored the potential of affective aspects – which often are overlooked - to solve water-related conflicts and contribute to cooperation for a sustainable and equitable future.”


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