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‘Water for Peace’ means water for all: for people and planet

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‘Water for Peace’ means water for all: for people and planet

22 March is the UN’s World Water Day, this year with the theme of “Water for Peace”.

SEI Scientist Doug Chalmers, who specializes in water conflict resolution, reflects on how settling differences in water disputes can promote lasting understanding in addition to well-being for humans and ecosystems alike. And this can be accomplished in part by deploying the tools and methods SEI has developed and refined for decades.

Doug Chalmers / Published on 21 March 2024

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Lynsi Burton /

Water is a universal resource, needed by all living beings on this planet to survive. It is vital for a wide set of interconnected global systems, including food, energy, ecosystems and livelihoods. As our global population and consumption levels continue to climb, so has the importance of allocating our planet’s limited freshwater resources between humans and ecosystems, as well as across the diverse set of human demands.

Water scarcity has been a source of human conflicts for millennia. However, at the same time, negotiations over water are often a surprising driver of reconciliation. Acknowledging the cruelty of withholding a resource so immediately necessary for life often forces groups around the world to recognize our common humanity and work together.

This year, the UN celebrates World Water Day by urging us to reflect on the theme, “Water for Peace.” What does this have to do with water planning? At SEI, water research and planning are not only an avenue for more sustainable development, but a means for resolving conflict between countries and local parties in a way that addresses competing needs among both humans and ecosystems.

If you can manage to get folks to agree, even perhaps reluctantly, on a solution that better balances the competing uses for water, we can better protect our aquatic species while still maintaining water security and livelihoods for agriculture and domestic use.

Doug Chalmers

Using the evidence-based tools and processes, SEI has developed and continues to refine, our innovative approach to water planning works to unite competing interests toward a common goal of water and peace for all. Harmonizing water, energy, food and ecosystem interests brings a wealth of benefits: increased water availability, lower greenhouse gas emissions, higher Gross Domestic Product and added agricultural value, which can improve livelihoods and well-being. If you can manage to get folks to agree, even perhaps reluctantly, on a solution that better balances, maybe imperfectly, the competing uses for water, we can better protect our aquatic species while still maintaining water security and livelihoods for agriculture and domestic use.

To strengthen cooperation around water, at SEI, we employ our philosophy which focuses on the importance of both technical information, as well as improving diplomatic relationships. Our Robust Decision Support (RDS) invokes an iterative process between bringing stakeholders, often with different – and sometimes conflicting – interests and perspectives, together to the table, as well as mapping out watersheds and future conditions using SEI’s Water Evaluation And Planning System (WEAP) modelling platform. Under our approach, the model helps guide the conversations toward the answer, rather than directly providing the answer itself. These conversations are where the hard work really happens to build consensus on how to manage the watershed.

It’s this philosophy that informed a pilot water program in California’s Silicon Valley, where years of legal conflict between the local water district and fisheries groups resulted in a settlement that forced the utility to re-operate its reservoirs to better protect aquatic species, including salmon and steelhead. The settlement introduced the Fish and Aquatic Habitat Collaborative Effort, where SEI engaged in a series of workshops between the parties to generate new ideas and refinements to the water model to quantify how alternative operation schemes affect ecosystems and water users. This process led to an agreement on a set of reservoir re-operation rules the utility has begun to pilot which balance the needs of threatened species and human demands.

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With a mutual understanding among stakeholders of the “cards in our hand”, SEI’s processes promote better decision-making of how to play them. The information quantifying the trade-offs inherent in allocating limited water supplies supports better decision-making, promoting stability, economic prosperity and the ecosystem’s well-being. Our tools can help develop a shared vision among stakeholders – often with competing interests, such as farmers and environmentalists – on sustainable water management and environmental protection, lead to better-informed decision-making in investments and policies, strengthen regional cooperation, and develop plans to replenish depleted aquifers that balance economic and environmental needs.

Where SEI does this work

SEI works to strengthen cooperation around water at many scales, including across countries, at local levels, across different sectors (water-food-energy nexus), and across multiple users of the same sector (such as agriculture users). Notable projects include:

  • USAID Regional Water and Vulnerable Environment Activity (WAVE): This project is aimed at strengthening cooperation among five Central Asian countries to help foster economic stability and water security while also protecting the ecosystems in their river basins. It links Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in an effort to manage shared water resources using governmental collaboration and scientifically based water modelling, transcending the borders of the countries that share the Syr Darya and Amu Darya river basins.
  • Mekong: A web‐based platform called Supporting Water Resources Management (SWARM) was developed to allow users with differing knowledge bases to envision and decide management strategies amid climate uncertainties in Southeast Asia’s Lower Mekong Region. The SWARM platform is a tool for promoting water cooperation among multiple users and for exploring possible actions within the river basins that directly address Sustainable Development Goal 6.5.
  • SacWAM: This tool quantifies the complex water operations across the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system, which connects most of the entire state of California. It informs statewide policies to balance goals of promoting agriculture and municipal water supply, replenish aquifers, improve freshwater supply to the Delta for ecosystems and reducing saltwater intrusion. These issues are the backbone behind much of the statewide conflict regarding water in California.
  • South Fork Eel River: This project quantifies water rights held in this California river basin and estimates water diversion by black market cannabis growers to inform potential policies which balance delivery to agriculture water right holders and ecosystems, as well as enforcement of unpermitted cannabis growers.
  • Lesotho water security and climate change assessment: This analysis conducts the first systematic examination of the vulnerabilities of Lesotho’s water management system to climate change by exploring a set of adaptation strategies across a wide range of potential future conditions, with the goal of ensuring water security and sustainable growth.
  • Hydro-economic analysis for Rwanda: This project aims to identify sectors and geographical areas likely to experience future water supply challenges that threaten to hamper growth and transformation in Rwanda. Researchers’ objective is to evaluate the country’s water sector and identify opportunities to achieve sustainable water resources management, enabling long-term economic growth.

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