Kaveh Madani Presents Water: Think Again at TEDxKish (Transcript)

Boutros Ghali, another UN Secretary General, what did he say? He thinks that water can become more important and more significant than oil. And that the Middle East might experience a war over water.

The former Vice President of the World Bank thought that the 21st century wars would be fought over water. Water war. That’s interesting. It was interesting when I heard it. And I really wanted to know if there will be any water war.

Have you ever had any war over water? Why was I interested in water war? Because I was always dreaming about playing it since childhood. Of course not. Of course, not. Water and war are two important things for me. I’ll tell you more, the real story. Why water?

I was passionate about water. I think I had no choice but being passionate about water, because I was the only child of the parents who were working for the water sector. In fact, they dated and got married when they were working for the water sector. So I’m thankful to water for giving me great parents. So studying water was the least I could do to thank it.

Besides that, I was interested in war. Why should I be interested in war? I grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. I have a crystal clear picture of the first missile attack to Teheran. 29th February 1988, when I was only six. A big explosion, a few meters away. Nothing happened to me, but I remember my mum injured and she was in blood. I was confused. To date I still panic about it and I have nightmares of planes attacking our neighborhood. That confusion, that explosion! I didn’t know what was going on.

So war would be the last thing I would be interested in. On the contrary, I like peace, like many of you. I want to find ways to prevent conflicts, and make the world a more peaceful place.

So I had to find a way to study things, to study water conflicts. I was an engineer interested in politics and social sciences, so my colleagues and peers thought that’s lack of competence because you’re getting it out of mathematics and computer modeling. So I had to find a way, and I think I did. I used game theory. Game theory is a mathematical study of cooperation and conflicts. I used game theory to understand why people might behave in different ways and in different situations. I want to understand their incentives, why they do certain things when they’re in conflict with other people. They have a range of options to pick from. They have preferences over the possible outcomes and they have to think about all moves and countermoves of all players in the game, if they want to make a good decision. It’s like playing chess or poker with others.

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Now, this field is a very growing field. It’s becoming more and more popular and lots of people are using it. We have been using it for water resource modeling and understanding conflicts. You probably remember this face: John Nash and the “A Beautiful Mind” movie. That’s the guy who has made a lot of contributions to this field.

So we ended up modeling a lot of conflicts around the world: conflicts in the Jordan river basin, Nile river basin, conflicts in Iran, conflicts in California, all over water.

The other thing I do is a lot of gaming. Remember, I told you I was an only child so I didn’t have a lot of gaming experience. So I do it with my students in class. We play a lot of games. It’s probably more fun. We play water games and I try to collect information from them, behavioral information. The information which is really hard for me to get if I go to the field and do experience in the field. So I collect the information, they have fun. But to ensure that they show their real behavior, what I do is that I tell them that their grade in the assignment would be their performance in the game. So they play a lot of games during the course and I collect a lot of information and use that information to develop water management institutions, which are less vulnerable to conflicts.

So let me tell you what I’ve gained, my experience out of 10 years of modeling and gaming. Water conflicts — yes, they exist, and as water becomes more scarce we will see more water conflicts, more water tensions, especially at lower levels between farmers, between provinces and states.

But one thing is important. Water conflicts are never only about water. Because water is tied to so many other things: your food, energy, the independence of your nation, the economy, politics, identity, dignity and so many other things. So even if countries claim that they’re only bargaining over water, it’s much more than that, it’s beyond that. So water will be used as a weapon to threaten the neighbors. This will go on forever.

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