Aaron Wolf’s Indigenous Solutions to Water Conflict

While Aaron Wolf has written extensively on water and conflict, perhaps the most relevant work to this Water Wiki was published in December 2000 in the International Negotiation: A Journal of Theory and Practice. It looks at two different groups living in dry regions – the Berbers of the High Atlas Mountains and the Bedouin of the Negev Desert. By looking at these two groups of indigenous peoples, Wolf observes the following lessons:

  1. Allocate time, not water
  2. Prioritize different demand sectors
  3. Protect Downstream and Minority Rights
  4. Alternative Dispute Resolution
  5. The “sulha”

To read the entire text of the paper, visit However, a brief summary and simplification follows.

There are 263 transboundary rivers covering almost half of the earth. Clean freshwater is the only scarce resource for which there is no substitute. Additionally, the international law on the subject is not well developed. As a result, tensions can grow quite high. While there has been a great deal of recent research on the subject of water conflict resolution, very little has been done to study how indigenous people have historically solved water conflicts. Recognizing the great deal of knowledge that may be gained from studying indigenous cultures, Aaron Wolf has documented how both the Berber and Bedouin people have historically dealt with water conflicts. He focuses on the criteria used to allocate water resources, who takes on the role of facilitator, and what negotiation techniques are used to solve conflict. During his travels, Wolf asked members of the communities what water conflicts they were aware of and how those conflicts have been resolved. He also asked how their experiences may be used to resolve current water conflicts around the world. Wolf treats his study simply as a request from indigenous people for advice.

Some basic Islamic principles apply to water issues. First, water provided by God means that it comes from a naturally-occurring source and is available throughout the year. Second, water provided by land means that human labor created the means for obtaining the water. According to Islamic legal tenets, water provided by God cannot be bought or sold. This water should be available for all to use equally. For water collected by human efforts, there can still be no charge for the water, but it is acceptable to charge for delivery, treatment, and storage. With this background, Wolf goes on to discuss the specific methods of conflict resolution.


Wolf finds that the Bedouins use volumetric quantities to allocate water. However, the Berber allocate water by time, not quantity. Most international water agreements suggest that water should be allocated based on quantity like the Bedouins, yet Wolf finds benefits to allocating based on time, like the Berbers. First, allocating based on time spreads risk of not having enough supply as broadly as possible. As an example, if someone has access to the water for one hour each day, that person must prepare for fluctuations. Alternatively, allocating water based on volume means that risk would be concentrated among the most recent users of the water source, which is likely a large group of people. The problem with allocating based on volume is that one nation bears the full burden of fluctuating supply. The second benefit Wolf identifies is that time allocations lead to greater usage efficiency, which can lead to a better-developed water market. By developing a water market, conservation is encouraged. The people or nations are not required to use their water or lose it in a market setting, because they can potentially sell the water they have acquired in their allotted time. Remember, though, that Islamic tenets disallow for buying and selling water. This problem has been avoided in the past by enforcing the idea that it is not the water being bought and sold, but the time.


Wolf finds that the Berbers assign priority to the users of the water supply. The order of priority is as follows: drinking water for humans, drinking water for animals, irrigation water, water for mills, and finally water brought to the land through modern means. The Bedouins use a similar method of prioritizing: water to quench thirst, water for domestic use, water for animals, water for irrigation and agriculture, and lastly water for industrial uses. For the Bedouins, waste water is prohibited.


In the Berber villages, there is a potential for upstream users to abuse the water supply at the expense of downstream users; however, this does not seem to happen like it does in similar international arrangements. The hak’m, who is a regional judge, explained the situation to Wolf. Because the villagers are aware of the potential risks for abuse, he says, they take precautions to prevent abuse. Because the water supply is allocated by time, downstream rights are implicitly protected. The agreements are respected as a part of the history of the culture, and the villagers would not want to break tradition. The Bedouins, in contrast, view the term downstream as meaning weaker or smaller. They tend to believe that the larger groups should get access to water first. Despite this general belief, though, Wolf found anecdotal evidence that suggests a more equitable arrangement exists in practice. A villager told him the story of two brothers who split a piece of land, one piece had a well and one did not. The brothers had a conflict as to whether or not the brother without the well should have access to the other brother’s well. They took the case to a judge, who decided that “they should share the water for the sake of peace in the family.” According to Wolf, this story seems to be more indicative of how the Bedouins treat these disputes. He observes that equity and protection of minority and downstream rights are common views of both the Bedouin and Berber people.


According to Wolf, “Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) refers to a wide variety of consensual approaches with which parties in conflict voluntarily seek to reach a mutually acceptable settlement.” ADR tries to move the competing groups from zero-sum arrangements to a positive-sum solution. While the Bedouin and Berber villages do not use the term ADR, they do seem to have established similar means of conflict resolution. In the Berber culture, there is a mediator called a marabout, who is respected for wisdom and an ability to solve conflict. While the marabout is not currently a strong force in the culture, other mediators have come about as authority figures. Each village now has an a’alam or naib, who resolves internal disputes and manages the irrigation schedule. This person rotates among family lineages. When there is a conflict, the first attempt at resolution is the a’alam. Sometimes, the heads of each lineage will come in to help. If this fails, an appeal can be made to a regional judge called the hak’m. The hak’m attempts to resolve the conflict using Berber tradition in combination with Islamic law. If this attempt fails, there is another appeal possible to through the modern Moroccan legal system. Bedouins use a similar system with a judge, called a qadu.

Wolf says that a large problem in international water dispute resolution is that there is often no commonly recognized authority like is present in the Berber and Bedouin cultures. Further, he says that the United Nations’ International Law Commission has recently drafted law that focuses more on politics than science and does not contain enforcement mechanisms. Much of the law ignores minority interests, as well. While the methods used by the Berbers and Bedouins may not be easily adopted on a bigger scale, their lessons can be used by international agencies to train staff in dispute resolution.

Because the ADR methods present in the Berber and Bedouin cultures, the hak’m Wolf spoke with said that water disputes reach him rarely, and there has only been one instance in which the dispute was appealed over him. The hak’m said that the success at peaceful conflict resolution has to do with the following techniques:

  • “Shared Vision” Exercises – The mediator asks conflicting parties to look at the future both if the negotiations fail and if they are successful. The conflicting parties refer back to the shared vision throughout the course of negotiation. The hak’m says that the exercise helps diffuse anger, and puts the conflict into the context of shared values.
  • Threat of “BATNA” (the best alternative to a negotiated agreement) – Everyone involved in the negotiations is asked to be aware of the alternatives that may be possible through different methods of conflict resolution. The hak’m uses BATNA to keep the conflicting parties involved in the negotiations. He reminds them that if they go to a traditional court, the judgment may not be based on Berber tradition, which provides a good incentive to keep them involved. Bedouins also stress the importance of solving the conflict among themselves and not escalating matters to the formal justice system.


A sulha is a ritual forgiveness ceremony that is performed in Islamic cultures when a wrong has been committed. The Berbers and Bedouins both use the sulha following a negotiation between conflicting parties. After the sulha ritual is performed, it is as if the conflict never occurred. Also, the forgiveness is legally binding on the disputing individuals and the community. Wolf mentions that there is not a similar forgiveness ritual in the international community, at large. He says that negotiations are often secret. He further states that a public ceremony would allow the conflicting community to celebrate resolution and “take ownership of seeing to its implementation.”


Wolf recognizes that the Berber and Bedouin studies were small in scale and may not translate easily to other water conflicts. However, he does believe that the experiences are very valuable, and many of the lessons and techniques can be altered in similar situations. Because there is no real international water authority, he feels that there is a great deal to be learned in indigenous cultures who have been dealing with water scarcity and fluctuating resources for thousands of years.

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