Application of Environmental Conflict Resolution to Public Interest Issues in Water Disputes

Michael Jeffrey QC
Donna Craig


This article examines the role of environmental conflict resolution (ECR) in the public interest issues of water disputes. The article endeavours to  illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of a range of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and negotiation approaches in the context of decision-making. Although many embrace ECR as the cheaper and more effective alternative to more formalistic and entrenched judicial processes before courts of law and quasi-judicial tribunals, the authors argue that there is an urgent need for a more critical, contextual and issue-oriented approach. In particular, the article highlights the significant difficulties associated with representing the full range of stakeholders who should be involved in an ADR process, and the lack of transparency and procedural safeguards associated with ADR in complex public interest disputes. The strength of ADR in smaller project-specific disputes involving a very limited number of stakeholders is well understood. The authors argue that ADR may have a significant role in scoping the issues and associated research as well as facilitating agreement on procedural aspects of large, complex public interest water disputes. However, ADR has severe limitations as a decision-making process. For example, water conflicts necessarily involve the concept of sustainability that in turn touches on a complex maze of social, political, economic and ecological values. The probability of reaching a mediated settlement in such a context is severely curtailed. A preferable approach may be one that is entirely transparent, capable of being both monitored and enforced, and is binding on all stakeholders whether or not they are parties to the mediation.


Environmental conflict resolution; alternative dispute resolution; water disputes; sustainability; public interest;

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