Jan 6 2021

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions

Reviewed by Shekhar Chandra, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

How can our understanding of the complexity of water disputes enable us to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources? Why does a unified theory of water conflicts, although attractive among academics, remains elusive?

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts

Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions, edited by Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam, Anthem Press, 2018, 292 pp.

Water is a critical input for economic development and the functioning of the natural environment. Due to the changing climate, increasing demand, unsustainable use of water resources, and political relationships between groups of people, states and countries are being adversely affected—and in some cases even driven—by disputes over shared water resources.   Water-related conflicts are occurring at all geographical scales. There are local disputes among groups fighting for access in the face of increasing demand and supply gaps resulting from poor physical and institutional infrastructure, state-level conflicts within national jurisdiction laying competing claims over shared water resources, and international conflicts, often involving transboundary water disputes. Gleick (2009) shows that the number of violent conflicts over water resources increased from at least 19 in 1900 to at least 61 in 2007.

Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam provide an interesting perspective on transboundary water disputes. They argue that in transboundary disputes, causal relations are not clear. In such conflicts, uncertainty, non-linearity, and bidirectional feedbacks occur all the time that makes system dynamics highly complex and continuously evolving. The book is in three parts. The first part deals with the theoretical framework, especially the underlying elements of complexity theory. Using examples of the Indus and the Jordan, they identify three enabling conditions—interest identification, interdependence recognition, and conflict-resolution mechanisms. The second part underscores the complexity of some of the ongoing water conflicts around the world that includes the Danube, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Nile, and Colorado rivers. Finally, the third part is mostly a reflection on several cases in different river basins on the roles and interactions of complexity, enabling conditions, and contingency in varying contexts.

There are practical takeaways from this work. The authors make a case that while developing a general theory of water conflicts remains highly attractive among academics, regardless of the number of conflicts we study, a unified theory would be elusive. It is because each case is continuously evolving and has a set of unique characteristics—what they call “enabling conditions.” Such contextual uniqueness of conflicts makes the pursuit of one single theory of water conflicts extremely difficult. The authors make it amply clear that despite the importance of situational and contextual factors, conflicts are often (unfortunately) reduced to questions about respective shares of a fixed resource (water), which inevitably ends up as a multi-variate optimization problem.

Overall, the book is a wonderful addition to the foundational textbook, Water Diplomacy, on water dispute by Professors Islam and Susskind (2012). Their conceptualization that water is a flexible resource has radically changed the way academics and practitioners think of managing water resources. This book further advances our understanding of the complexity of water disputes to be able to sustainably manage our dwindling water resources. 


Gleick PH. Water Conflict Chronology. The World’s Water, 2008–2009: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington, DC: Island Press; 2009:151–196.

Susskind, L. & Shafiqul Islam. (2012). Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks. New York: RFF Press.

Oct 9 2012

PLANNING WITH COMPLEXITY by Judith Innes and David Booher

Reviewed by Shafiqul Islam, Tufts University

This book presents a new theory of collaborative rationality to help make sense of the new practices.

Planning With Complexity: An Introduction to Collaborative Rationality for Public Decision-making, by Judith Innes and David Booher, Routledge, 256pp

In Planning with Complexity, this scholar-practitioner team looks at planning and public policy through the lens of complexity science. They explicitly recognize that many social policy, planning and management problems are “wicked” as defined by Rittel and Webber (1973). They argue that there is no consensus even on the definition of the problem, much less on goals to achieve. The uncertainty inherent in such complex systems means that even powerful actors and knowledgeable experts cannot predict how uncertainty in information, action and perception will manifest itself on a particular policy prescription. A central aspect of their argument is that for wicked problems, there is no solution that can be shown to be predictable and optimal.

They propose a new form of planning and policy called, collaborative rationality. This is a welcome departure from traditional instrumental rationality for decision-making. Their collaborative decision-making theory – Diversity, Interdependence, Authentic Dialogue (DIAD) – is based on three conditions embedded within it. It is theoretically elegant and grounded in the work of Habermas (1981) and the notion of communicative rationality. When all of the ordinary constraints on the free exchange of ideas (such as differences in status, power, etc) are lifted, Habermas believes that good faith discourse between individuals will allow them to reach a consensus about the truth. Authors explicitly recognize that collaborative rationality requires an equalization of power among all stakeholders (P. 111).

It is not clear, however, how pragmatic such an equalization of power is for planning and management of wicked problems. This is partly because rationality based on scientific method and positivist approach is a highly contested notion, while collaborative decision-making relies heavily on interpretive, pragmatic and experiential way of knowing. How to make these apparently dichotomous ideas into collaborative decision-making process in a politically real world is a practical challenge. Authors are pragmatic in acknowledging that “dialogues cannot directly change the deep structure of power (P. 110)” but actions can have second or third order effects. Their observation that planning has to proceed independent of trust  is somewhat puzzling. Recent literature on planning and management of common pool resources (Ostrom 2011, Susskind and Islam 2012) suggest creating trust and values to be fundamental in this regard.

To summarize, Innes and Booher have provided a fresh look and theoretical foundation on how to think about planning and managing wicked problems from complexity science perspectives. Hopefully, their future contribution will provide more insight on how to practically manage wicked problems within the context of collaborative rationality.