Fresh water nourishes crops, hydrates rural and urban populations alike, and generates energy in countries around the world. Streams and rivers provide natural transportation routes for huge volumes of local and international trade, connecting town-to-town and nation-to-nation. 

Our oceans are not only rife with aquatic habitats and fish, but are also home to increasingly valuable sources of energy in the forms of offshore oil, wind, and gas. As we invent new ways to use our ocean resources, the number of competing interests multiplies and the factors determining how we prioritize these resources roll and shift under our feet. 

Water scarcity and stress in politically fragile regions continue to be a major human security risk. While the phrase “blood will flow for H20” is too simple to summarize the issues at hand, the pressure to secure water is a source of political and economic conflict throughout many regions of global significance: the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, northern China, the US Southwest, and Mexico among them.

How we use these water resources not only impacts our own lives, economies, and personal security but also the very habitats and ecosystems that ensure the success of numerous species on the planet. We have both practical and intrinsic reasons to consider how our use of water affects other species in the near term as well as the long term.

Climate change is yet another destabilizer in the complicated issue of water management around the world. Climate volatility, particularly droughts and floods, can have vast and devastating direct impacts on water management for agriculture, investments, for water infrastructure, and the livelihoods of millions around the world. 

As the stakes grow higher and higher, the potential benefits of effective collaboration and conflict resolution for managing water issues become crystal clear. 


As we’ve developed more applications for water, its value has grown substantially. Governments and water users have developed increasingly complex allocations of rights, costs and roles. 

Throughout the world, water policy decision-making is also divided along sector lines – agriculture, energy, environment, urban sanitation, and fisheries – leading to frequent cross-sector conflicts. Developing integrative water management strategies at the watershed or river basin level is an immense challenge. When dealing with transboundary rivers and oceans, we add yet another level of inter-governmental diplomacy, treaty-making and commission machinery and all the process and political challenges they bring.

Effective collaboration can build a shared understanding of current and projected water demand, sources of supply, and conservation/reuse options; facilitate the effective negotiation and conflict resolution; and create partnerships to manage water better for a diverse range of purposes and users. While engaging a full range of stakeholders is necessary in the collaborative planning and policymaking process, it raises important questions:

  •   How do we address the mismatch between political boundaries and ecosystem boundaries?
  •   How do we effectively represent and integrate the enormous range of stakeholder interests when planning at the river basin scale? 
  •   How do we respect legal and moral rights to water in a multi-stakeholder collaboration process?
  •   How much can we do by improving collaboration strategies and processes? What are the areas where we actually need scientific, technological, political, or other significant breakthroughs to actually lay the groundwork for effective collaboration in the future?


Conversation exploring the future of water management must consider the increasing effects of climate change and the ever-increasing pace of technological change. These unknowns will greatly impact the policy and management challenges in reallocating resources in these highly stressed and crisis situations and exploring how collaborative approaches can adapt to these shifting sands.

Collaborative approaches to policy and management may be reduced or may need to be adapted if technology enables dramatic advances such as very low water demand crops, water saving and recycling, and/or very low cost desalination. 

Pondering potential long-run “game changers” will determine the scope and range of collaborative practices in the future. 

Read more about the 20th Anniversary panel on Water.