Composite head shot of the authors
Photo credit for Islam (left): Shafiqul Islam, Photo credit for Susskind (right): Takeo Kuwabara

Water Diplomacy: Our Ten-Year Journey of Learning by Doing

#SciDipTurns10 transboundary water resources international research Americas Broader Middle East and North Africa East Asia Europe Oceania South and Central Asia Sub-Saharan Africa

Ten years ago, we published our AAAS article about creating value and building trust during water negotiations by suggesting that most difficulties in water management are the product of holding strongly to rigid assumptions related to access, allocation, and use of water. In the decade since the publication of both that article and our book, Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks, our Water Diplomacy Framework (WDF) has provided an alternative approach to more effective water management.1

A Distinction between Scientific and Social Facts
The resolution of water conflicts requires answers to questions that cannot be answered using scientific methods alone. Social facts2  – in contrast to scientific facts – must also be brought into play. These aspects are context-dependent and rarely reproducible or scientifically verifiable. Yet they exert significant influence on the outcome of decision-making. In operationalizing the WDF, agencies and stakeholders need to synthesize the rigor of scientific facts and the reality of social facts to achieve actionable agreements.

A Problem-Driven Approach to Complexity
We learned from water practitioners from many fields that while they were convinced about the merits of water diplomacy, they remained unsure about how to integrate our advice into practice. In response, we developed a workshop curriculum focusing on a realistic role-play simulation.3 We created a database4 to share case studies that show how the WDF can be applied to water conflicts. These initiatives, as well as our ongoing university efforts to educate graduate students, connected 400 water scholars and practitioners from around the globe and trained several hundred water professionals.5 We continue to emphasize water diplomacy as an interdisciplinary, problem-solving approach to water management that balances principles and pragmatism.6

Stakeholders, Interests, and Identities
Traditionally, most stakeholders were offered limited opportunities to participate in conceptualizing, designing, and implementing agreements regarding the management of shared waters. Long-term water agreements were made by leaders following the advice of technical experts. Many such agreements have proved unsustainable. We have outlined ways of managing the differences between interest-based and identity-based disputes and the way they play out in water management.7  

Emergence and Risks in Decision-Making Under Uncertainty
Our understanding of uncertainty, emergence, and risk has also evolved. We recognize that tools, techniques, and processes that are effective for simple problems probably won’t work for complex problems.8 The key to addressing emergent problems that contain widely divergent estimates of uncertainty lies in appreciating the difference between quantifiable uncertainty and irreducible uncertainty and emphasizing adaptive learning.

A Way Forward
Water diplomacy calls for principled pragmatism.9 Those involved in water governance must balance principles and pragmatism, especially when stakeholders hold conflicting principles. This means organizing joint fact-finding, acknowledging the importance of social facts, and bracketing multiple estimates of risks in the face of different types of uncertainty. In practical terms, principled pragmatism proposes formulating scientifically defensible ideas and being ready to transform them into priorities for collective action keeping in mind the capacity and constraints imposed by the context.



  1. Shafiqul Islam and Lawrence E. Susskind, Water Diplomacy: A Negotiated Approach to Managing Complex Water Networks, (New York, New York: Routledge, 2012); Lawrence Susskind, “Water and democracy: new roles for civil society in water governance,” International Journal of Water Resources Development, 666–677, May 15, 2013, Shafiqul Islam and Kaveh Madani, Water Diplomacy in Action: Contingent Approaches to Managing Complex Water Problems (New York, New York: Anthem Press, 2017); Enamul Choudhury and Shafiqul Islam, Complexity of Transboundary Water Conflicts: Enabling Conditions for Negotiating Contingent Resolutions, (New York, New York: Anthem Press, 2018); Shafiqul Islam and Lawrence Susskind, “Using complexity science and negotiation theory to resolve boundary-crossing water issues,” Journal of Hydrology 562, 589–598, (2018), Shafiqul Islam and Kevin M. Smith, Interdisciplinary Collaboration for Water Diplomacy: A Principled Pragmatic Approach, Earthscan Studies in Water Resource Management (New York, New York: Routledge, 2021).
  2. Émile Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method, (New York, New York: Free Press, 1982).
  3. See simulation materials: Catherine M. Ashcraft, Lawrence Susskind, and Shafiqul Islam, “Indopotamia: Negotiating Boundary-Crossing Water Conflicts,” Harvard Law School,
  4. Access the database here:
  5. For more information on the workshop, see:
  6. Islam and Smith, Interdisciplinary Collaboration for Water Diplomacy; Islam and Susskind, “Using complexity science and negotiation theory.”
  7. Jay Rothman, From Identity-Based Conflict to Identity-Based Cooperation: The ARIA Approach in Theory and Practice, (New York, New York: Springer, 2012).
  8. Islam and Susskind, “Using complexity science and negotiation theory.”
  9. Islam and Smith, Interdisciplinary Collaboration for Water Diplomacy.
Capacity Building and Development Transboundary Issues and Shared Spaces A Decade of Science & Diplomacy