United States-Mexico Water negotiations

Sunset on the Colorado River

Colorado River Sunset, Glen Canyon AZ , by Romain Guy

This project explores the landmark negotiations on the shared waters of the Colorado River between the United States and Mexico that were concluded in 2012. It took several decades to reach an agreement. We are hoping to identify why and how the conflicts, that were hopelessly deadlocked, were suddenly resolved.

The argument we are exploring is that the way countries conduct transboundary resource management negotiations (i.e. who they send as representatives, how the negotiators’ mandates are framed, what information they gather jointly, what ground rules they follow, how they stay in touch with their constituencies, and the flexibility they give their negotiators to search for mutually advantageous trades), alter the prospects for finding agreement.

Our preliminary hypothesis is that the impasses were broken when both sides found a way to shift their focus from allocating costs to allocating benefits. The two countries were able to re-interpret the circumstances surrounding the water resources on which they were focused (partly in response to drastic social and environmental disruptions including aquifer depletions, earthquakes, and droughts), which in turn modified the parties’ BATNAs, fostered new back table coalitions, and led to a reframing of beneficial trades that were not obvious earlier.

By focusing on the negotiation dynamics and speaking directly to the chief negotiators on both sides, we hope to draw conclusions that might apply to other international resource management disputes. We also hope to generate useful prescriptions about how stakeholders can get beyond hard-bargaining tactics and avoid ultimatums that accompany the presumption there are not enough resources to go around, and that one side must win and the other inevitably lose.

This research project is supported by the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program and the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, under the auspice of the National Science Foundation Water Diplomacy Program.

For more information, please contact Bruno Verdini.