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Understanding and Advancing Cooperation on Water Policy

New professor brings interdisciplinary expertise and fresh focus to international environmental policy at Fletcher.

Professor Melissa McCracken sees water as an inherent public good. She also believes it is in danger of falling prey to a world where, in the throes of climate change and water mismanagement, populations at all junctures – local to international – may find themselves at odds with their neighbors if safe, good quality water is suddenly in short supply. That’s why Fletcher’s newest professor, whose background includes a Ph.D. in geography, a masters in water security and a bachelor in engineering, is excited to bring her research, knowledge and opportunities for hands-on learning to The Fletcher School. 

We sat down with her for a quick Q&A to find out more about her background, areas of expertise, how she came to focus on the interdisciplinary issues of international water policy and management, and why she chose Fletcher as the best place to teach and conduct her research in this ground-breaking (no pun intended) field. 

1.) You focus on international water policy and management. Why is this area so critically important, especially now? 

I focus on international water policy and management, with an emphasis on cooperation and conflict over water. One of the key areas of research that I am concentrating on is measuring, evaluating, and promoting effective cooperation. Globally, we are running out of time to reduce the impact of climate change and lower the potential increase in global temperatures. The impacts of climate change are directly felt through our water systems. Climate change will cause (and we already see evidence of this) increased variability in rainfall, including changes in timing and intensity of precipitation. This is compounded by increased population growth and economic development that increases demand on a more variable, less predictable supply that in many parts of the world may be a reduced supply. In my opinion, the only way that we will be able to address these challenges is through the sharing of our water resources. To able to share the water we have and to ensure that it is of adequate quality to meet human and environmental needs, we have to cooperate, whether it is at a local scale or the international scale.  

2.) You have advanced degrees in geography, engineering, and water security and international development — you exemplify the interdisciplinary nature of Fletcher. Can you share any anecdotes (from your research or fieldwork) that highlight why taking an interdisciplinary approach is crucial to solving the most pressing water policy issues?

Water is inherently an interdisciplinary topic. We see a disconnect when policy is created without stakeholders, scientists, and engineers, or when engineering solutions are implemented without input from local communities and water users. One example that came up while I was conducting interviews as a part of my research on effective cooperation over transboundary water was about the sustainable use of a fossil aquifer.  A fossil aquifer is a water-bearing geologic layer that is no longer being recharged; essentially, it is like a storage tank that is no longer having water added to it. The question then becomes, how can there be sustainable use of an aquifer that is not being recharged? This is both a technical question and a policy question. The users of the resource must determine for themselves what sustainable looks like, but without an accurate understanding of the resource (for example, they may not know it is a fossil resource) or how much water is available, it is difficult to establish appropriate policy. This scenario is, of course, compounded by the fact that there will be competing ideas on how the groundwater should be used – or if it should be used at all – requiring skills in conflict resolution and negotiation. Water is both a physical resource and a human resource – meaning we need to be interdisciplinary and have familiarity with both technical and social science skills. 

3.) What brought you to this area of study, research, and work?

I had a roundabout path to this area of research! I enrolled in a master's program on environment and development and took an elective course on water security. It was eye-opening; I had never really thought of water in that way before – as an essential resource for life, but also one with complicated relationships with almost all aspects of the human and natural world. It is also a resource that is fraught with injustice and inequality. I choose to study cooperation and conflict over water resources because I believe that effective cooperation over shared waters has the potential to increase the availability and accessibility of water for people and the environment. 

4.) Why did you choose to come to Fletcher to teach and for the next step in your career? 

I chose to join the Fletcher community for many of the same reasons students do!  The Fletcher School's interdisciplinary nature and globalist perspective, its focus on diplomacy and international affairs, and the world-class faculty, staff, and students that create a truly unique environment for teaching and research. Given my interdisciplinary background and focus on international water and cooperation research, I think that Fletcher is the ideal place to advance my research and contribute to student learning on global water issues. 

5.) What kinds of hands-on opportunities will Fletcher students have when working with you on water policy issues?  

I am looking forward to involving Fletcher students in my research projects! Many of my current projects, which I am working collaboratively on with the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database, involve qualitative coding and content analysis of international agreements on transboundary rivers and evaluating news events for levels of conflict and cooperation over water. In the future, I am hoping to get students involved in fieldwork, such as conducting interviews, to test a methodology for evaluating effective transboundary water cooperation that I have developed. 

Watch below as McCracken introduces her new course on water security, which she'll teach in spring of 2021. 

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