Barbara Rose Johnston, an environmental anthropologist at the Center for Political Ecology, was a featured speaker at the recent 5th Water World Forum last month in Turkey. The mission of the forum, held every three years, is to “address growing water scarcity, the risk of conflict as countries squabble over rivers, lakes and aquifers, and how to provide clean water and sanitation to billions.”

Johnston’s accounts of her experience in Water Culture Wars are interesting and instructive, including this excerpt:

 “I arrived here on a Monday to the news that two friends from International Rivers were arrested at the opening session of the Forum. They unfurled a protest banner inside the conference that said “No risky dams” and chanted this slogan five times, a protest that involved all of a minute before they were pulled out, and arrested. The next day they were given the option of a minimum one-year sentence in prison or deportation. Their crime? Attempting to influence public opinion."

In her writings, Johnston describes myriad attempts by various parties at the forum to control the conversations by suppressing relevant information and dissent. She describes how powerful authorities described circumstances in a calculated way, withheld relevant details and spun information to influence outcomes.

Apparently the attempts were successful. She writes:

“The primary message from the water and cultural diversity sessions organized by the international community was: Water is a fundamental human right and a core element that sustains cultural ways of life and the environments on which we all depend.

The political statement that emerged from the forum, however, called for action to recognize water as an essential human need rather than a fundamental human right.

This is another example showing how our conversations help create the world in which we live.  Whether the topic is water, energy, housing or global economics, systemic thinking and authentic conversations will help us more easily find solutions that work for everyone.

A conversation about water that focuses only on creating more infrastructure, for instance, is short-sighted and dangerously narrow. By squelching other perspectives and dissent, a narrow solution gets crafted that benefits a few and harms many. Ignored are important issues such as conservation, population growth, cultural perspectives and a host of other things that have a huge impact on a natural resource without which humans cannot live.

Manipulative conversations derail true progress. By being transparent in our intentions and conversations, and learning to raise the difficult issues with good will, conversations can help us find sustainable solutions that take into account the good of the whole.  Unless we can talk openly about our doubts, concerns and fears while seeking common ground, we will opt for solutions that create winners and losers.  And that will only lead to new and different problems.