ZURICH, SWITZERLAND — 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.
A Swiss "Dutch boy" role developed as the ENCOP program started in 1992.
At the time, Mr. Libiszewski recalls, "Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization weren't talking to each other, and it was still illegal for an Israeli official to have contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization."
Aware of the Swiss research program, Israel's foreign ministry made discreet contacts with the Swiss, eager to open exploratory water talks with the PLO in a safe haven. "Zurich seemed like the perfect place to have them," Libiszewski said. "So our Center for Security Studies and Conflict Research hosted the meeting, and I got to meet the key negotiators on both sides. It was a researcher's dream come true."
Within a year another "Dutch boy" scenario unfolded. Norwegian scientists Terje Larsen and Mona Juul, carrying out a study on living conditions in the Israeli-occupied territories, initiated contact between Palestinians and Israelis. This led to the so-called "Oslo connection" peace talks.
Meanwhile other ETH and Swiss Peace Foundation scholars have done related studies on the most critical international water disputes. Among them:
* Stefan Klotzli's work on "the Aral Sea Syndrome" in Central Asia - a report on the water-scarcity options facing Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
* Nigerian Peter Okoh's study on the clash between Nigeria's oil-exploited Ogoniland and the nation's neighbors affecting the ecology of the Lake Chad-Basin.
Another group at the University of Zurich Institute of International Studies foresees its own "Dutch boy" role.
Thomas Bernauer says his group will focus on 15 cross-border rivers where conflict either threatens, has broken out, or has been resolved peacefully.
"Water is seldom responsible for conflict in itself," says Professor Bernauer. "It's usually one of many issues."