Small Nations Are Giants of Behind-the-Scene Negotiations

By Lyn Shepard, | The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 1997 | Go to article overview

Small Nations Are Giants of Behind-the-Scene Negotiations


Lyn Shepard,, The Christian Science Monitor


Small European nations increasingly see the example of the legendary Dutch boy at the dike as their role model in facing the conflict-laden politics of water scarcity and water control worldwide.

From the Mideast to Asia to Africa, countries like Switzerland have used behind-the-scenes efforts to identify environmental conflicts and resolve them before they escalate.

In the fable, the Dutch lad spots a trickle of water seeping through a a dike, presses a finger into the hole to stop the flow, and refuses to budge until relief can be summoned to save the day. Scholars in Switzerland find the analogy a useful one to explain how a "social early warning system" could use European expertise to defuse cross-border environmental disputes before the conflict breaks out into war. Third-world nations often prefer mediators from low-profile countries such as Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden to act as their "Dutch boys." And the Swiss - thanks to a century-old reputation as dutiful suppliers of Alpine water-powered electricity to their neighbors - have special credentials as respectors of peace and the ecology. This reputation lingers, if somewhat tarnished due to harsh criticism of Swiss banks and hydropower system suppliers for their roles in funding and building dams worldwide at great cost to society and the environment. Swiss researchers have stepped up studies of environmental trouble spots abroad, focusing upon the causes of conflict and how the often complex problems might be resolved. One such program - the Environment and Conflicts Project (ENCOP) - developed as a joint venture between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and the Swiss Peace Foundation (SPF). One researcher, Stephan Libiszewski, became a specialist in Arab-Israeli water conflicts through his study on the Jordan River Basin, carried out for the ETH's Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research. …

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