Turning conflict into collaboration on critical water challenges

Institutes of Energy and the Environment's Lara Fowler uses Fulbright scholarship to research innovative solutions

Lara Fowler is a visiting scholar at Uppsala University in Sweden where she is researching why and how people cooperate to manage critical water challenges and find solutions. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UPPSALA, Sweden — When dealing with challenges such as water pollution, droughts and flooding, conflict between people can arise.

For example, a farmer in Pennsylvania may resist changing practices that are leading to agricultural runoff. These practices are impacting the Chesapeake Bay 100 miles away, but for that farmer, the cost is too high, and the benefit is too low.

Because of this conflict, there is a popular narrative that the next war will be fought over water, according to Lara Fowler, assistant director for outreach and engagement in the Institutes of Energy and the Environment and a faculty member with Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs. However, Fowler, who is an experienced mediator and facilitator, said it is possible for people to find ways through seemingly intractable problems.

Currently, she is researching why and how people cooperate to manage critical water challenges and find solutions. Although this project took Fowler to Uppsala University in Sweden as a part of a U.S. Fulbright Scholar award, she is thinking about water issues that impact Pennsylvania.

“I wanted to find places in the world where people are coming together to find solutions,” she said. “And there is a tremendous amount of international water work based out of Sweden.”

Ashok Swain, a professor in Department of Peace and Conflict Research and director of Research School of International Water Cooperation at Uppsala University, said, “We are extremely excited to have Lara bringing her years of experience and expertise from the United States to work with us on exploring water management and innovations in water governance that not only reduce conflict but can actually enhance stability and promote peace.”

One facet of Fowler’s project includes examining how European countries have reduced agricultural runoff in an effort to improve water quality in the Baltic Sea. Like the Chesapeake Bay, the Baltic Sea has experienced toxic algae blooms due to excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from agricultural runoff.

“Many of the conversations taking place about restoring the Baltic Sea are similar to — or the same as — those about how to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its waterways,” she said.

Fowler is also looking at how communities find proactive ways to work together to adapt to flooding or droughts due to climate change.

“Strengthening connections internationally on critical issues like water allows us to learn from what is happening elsewhere, enhance opportunities across research, education and outreach, and work together to solve challenges,” she said. “Management of water can actually be the catalyst that brings people together.”

Last Updated October 16, 2019