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Negotiating For Clean Water Along the Border

Negotiating For Clean Water Along the Border
The U.S. and Mexico continue to struggle over border issues like national security and pollution runoff. We discuss how interests on both sides of the border are working toward solving these problems.

William Ury will speak at the Greening Borders: Cooperation, Security and Diplomacy conference at the University of San Diego at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 18, 2009. The conference runs through Friday, November 20, 2009.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The issue of water pollution along the Tijuana-San Diego border has a long and largely unresolved history. The Tijuana River, which receives its water from creeks and streams in Mexico, empties into the ocean in an estuary in San Diego's South Bay. Pollution from runoff in Mexico and now erosion from border fence construction are the environmental consequences of years of diplomatic inertia. A conference getting underway at the University of San Diego is trying to look at this old problem in a new light. The event is called Greening Borders: Cooperation, Security and Diplomacy, and two of the participants are with us today. I’d like to welcome Michel Boudrias, co-chair of USD’s Greening Borders conference, and he is chair of the Marine Science and Environmental Studies department at USD. Michel, welcome to These Days.

MICHEL BOUDRIAS (Co-Chair, Greening Borders Conference): Thank you, Maureen.


CAVANAUGH: And William Ury is co-founder and senior fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project and co-author of "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In." William, welcome.

WILLIAM URY (Co-founder and Senior Fellow, Harvard Negotiation Project): My pleasure, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And I’d like to tell everyone that you’re welcome to join the conversation. Do you live near the Tijuana River? Tell us about the environmental concerns that you have. Do you have a theory about why this pollution issue remains unresolved? Call us with your questions and your comments if you’d like. The number is 1-888-895-5727. Michel, let me start with you and ask you, if you could, to describe the pollution problem along the Tijuana River watershed.

BOUDRIAS: Well, as you know, it comes – the watershed itself actually covers both sides of the border. And many people have seen these impacts where you see both the impacts of nutrient pollution, too many nutrients, pollutants themselves, contaminants, heavy metals. In addition to that, now we’re seeing a lot of issues with trash, with sedimentation, and so it’s coming from both sides. It’s coming, actually, quite farther east but it’s really affecting a lot of communities closer to the estuary themselves. You see it in Chula Vista, you see it in Tijuana. And, of course, as you hear many times when we have big pollution events, it goes all the way across and affects the Silver Strand and it affects Coronado. So it’s an issue that really has been going on for a long time. It has multiple dimensions from the water quality perspective and we’re dealing with public health issues for people that are near the border. There are environmental issues for the organisms that are there. So, really, what we’re dealing with is a variety of connected issues towards the impact of what the water is like and all the stuff that’s carried in the water as well.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us what problems this pollution causes. I know from time to time, if we have, let’s say, a big rainstorm, we have a lot of – we have beach closures…



CAVANAUGH: …and problems like that. But on a day-to-day level, are there smaller problems that the pollution causes?

BOUDRIAS: There are smaller problems for a couple of things. There are people – many people who actually live in the canyons…


BOUDRIAS: …especially on the Mexican side. And what you’re getting there is they’re exposed to not only this continuous stream of pollutants going down there, there’s a lot of trash issues that are building, things that are building up. The organisms themselves, some of the birds, some of the animals that are there, have an impact on what’s going on. And the concern as well is that if it rains, we may see flooding which will, therefore, really impact the communities. So, yes, it’s true that we tend to really see it when there’s a big rain event but on a day to day basis, if you live nearby or the organisms that are there are actually exposed to many different things that are not good for them, including public health issues.

CAVANAUGH: Now what kind of groups – I know there are various groups who are sort of committed to trying to solve this problem, who are they?

BOUDRIAS: There’s an amazing array of groups that have worked on this in the past. There’s been groups centered at San Diego State, at UCSD, there are many civic society groups, Wildcoast, the Tijuana River National Estuarine Reserve does a lot of work there. There are academics who have been working many years on this. There’s a Tijuana Recovery Plan group. There are some tribal groups that work on all of this. So, really, it’s amazing when you start digging into this, the amount of people that have been working on this and the types of groups that have been involved, and it’s a mixture of civic society, of environmental advocacy and of academics who’ve been involved for literally two or three decades.

CAVANAUGH: So, so many people have so much interest in solving this problem, why do you think it has remained unsolved for such a long time?

BOUDRIAS: I think there’s a couple of reasons, one of which is there’s a lot of energy in working but they’re not always working together and sometimes they’re doing the exact same work from different perspectives. And in a way, if you think about that, if you’ve got two groups working at the same time rather than working together, in a way kind of diluting the effort in ways. I think there’s a political issue as well on both sides of the border. And one of the big impacts is that within that – with the security issues in particular, that has really trumped a lot of the environmental issues. There’s no doubt that people on both sides of the border, both the citizenry and the academics, really want to solve this problem but I think what we’re running into is barriers, either political barriers or cooperative barriers. And I don’t mean this in a way that’s negative. I don’t say they don’t want to work with each other but I think there’s not always a forum for all these people to get together and share expertise and knowledge and maybe work as a bigger group to sort of break down the political barriers.

CAVANAUGH: And so, Michel, it’s time for the negotiator. I’m speaking with Michel Boudrias. And William Ury is now entering the conversation. He is senior fellow of the Harvard Negotiation Project, co-author of "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In." I want to let everyone know we are taking your calls if you’re interested in joining the conversation, 1-888-895-5727. So you are the expert, William, on international negotiations. What are some keys to successful negotiations?

URY: Well, I would say, you know, the first key, Maureen, is the ability to listen actually, which is what we’re doing here. It’s the ability to kind of set a relational environment, to create a relational context in which you can talk about very difficult issues and people can bring the difficulties because—and this is, to me, one of the amazing things about this conference—is this conference is bringing a unique mix of people. There have been governmental entities that have talked before but this is really unique in bringing a wide range of tribal leaders, of civil society leaders, of environmental groups, of businesses and so on, you have to get all the players in the room so that all the voices are in the room and then – and really speak their truths and speak their perspectives on it. And out of that and out of listening, because negotiation, interestingly, even though we think about it as talking, is actually much more about listening. And, you know, there’s a saying that God gave us two ears and a mouth for a reason, and if you observe successful negotiators, they listen far more than they talk. So that, to me, is the first thing and I think behind listening, too, is an issue of respect because this is a cross-border, cross-cultural challenge. There have been perceived instances of disrespect, of exclusion of voices and so on, and so if you want to kind of set up the negotiation for success, you need to include, you need to show respect, you need to listen. That’s sort of step number one.

CAVANAUGH: When you do listen, though, will you always understand what you hear? Are there cultural differences that impact how people negotiate?

URY: Definitely. And here we have, you know, a cultural transition zone here. And there’s a big difference between American culture and Mexican culture just to take, you know, a gross generalization. I mean, Americans, for example, in our style of communication are much more direct. We want to get straight to the point. Time is money. Mexico is much more representative of actually the rest of the world where time is relationship. Things are more formal. You have to do things in a certain way. Communication’s a little more indirect. Honor, pride, face saving are more important. And if we don’t understand that, it’s critical because we don’t really see the culture that we’re around. It’s like fish not seeing the water. We don’t see the cultural environment in which we live and yet it’s critical because culture is – it’s like a communication system. If we’re talking to them, it’s like we’re talking to them in a foreign language that they can’t understand and vice versa.

CAVANAUGH: So you will be at the USD conference, the Greening Borders conference, basically telling the participants how they should listen to each other and perhaps how they should speak with each other. How would you approach this issue of a polluted river valley between two countries? Would there be like first steps, things that you would have to agree on first before the negotiation could go further?

URY: Yeah, and that’s what this is. This isn’t an actual negotiation. This is kind of like a pre-negotiation…


URY: …a dialogue, really, which is the first step, is to get all the players together, hear all the different points of view, and then listen. One of the keys in negotiation is to listen behind the positions, which are the things that people say that they want. You know, we don’t want any pollution, we want economic – you know, to – What are the true underlying interests? What are the needs of the communities? Is it – For example, economic development is very important. If you don’t understand that, you’re not going to be able to solve the problem of pollution. Understanding all the different interests at stake, really get them out on the table, and then use the power of creativity, which is radically under utilized. The power of collective creativity, of collective wisdom to say are there solutions out there that actually can meet you needs and meet our needs as well. And it’s out of that kind of collective creative process which I think a conference like this can do, it can kind of create new ideas. Then you enter into a negotiation process, which is different, which is more formalized and where you’re actually looking for decision. You’re looking for a consensus. You’re looking for agreement.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with William Ury. He is co-founder, senior fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project, and co-author of "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In." And Michel Boudrias, co-chair of USD’s Greening Borders conference. He’s chair of the Marine Science and Environmental Studies department at the University of San Diego. And we are talking about the start of the Greening Borders conference. It’s called Greening Borders: Cooperation, Security and Diplomacy. They’ll be talking about – mostly about water pollution issues between the U.S. and Mexico right here in the San Diego region. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You know, Michel, I know that William is from the east and so he hasn’t been with us through the many long years that we have been dealing with this pollution problem. Tell us how the added factor now of the border fence is also impacting the problems we have perhaps about talking about this issue because we had pollution at the border a long time before we had the fence but what has that added into the discussion?

BOUDRIAS: Well, one of the things it’s added is that it has, as I said a little bit earlier, in a way it has trumped some of the environmental issues because security is so important in this perspective. They’ve built a border fence in areas that is changing the flow of the river and many of the people who are there on a daily basis, who work there regularly, are really concerned that it’s actually going to exacerbate the problems, that the fence, though there to prevent, you know, people coming across and all the security issues that are connected to it, is really going to change the dynamics of how the water goes – flows through. It may really – Many of the people are concerned that if we do have an El Nino, which is potentially what we’re due for here…

CAVANAUGH: Well, it’s forecast.

BOUDRIAS: It’s a forecast. That if the rains are as heavy as they typically be, the flooding will be even worse now because some of the natural flow patterns have changed. You’re filling in areas that in the past could take on some of the extra water. You’re going to be increasing erosion and sedimentation issues. And I think that’s part of the issue that is – needs to be thought of, not just because it’s an environmental issue but because it has so many other dimensions. And one of the things when Bill talked about the – this concept of two different cultures, the other thing I see is there are also different cultures in the people who are working here, so the governmental culture versus the academic culture versus the civic society culture. And that’s another one of those barriers that we need to break down because the people come in with their very own perspective and we’re trying to say come in with an open mind and try and change the perspective. One of the reasons we’re excited to do this at the School for Peace Studies is that it’s a neutral ground. It’s a place where we view, therefore, everybody’s opinion and everybody’s perspective could come in and also just by the fact that the co-chairs are in the School of Peace Studies and in the College of Arts and Sciences, showing you that the scientist side—that would be me—and the conflict resolution side on our campus—which would be Dr. Amy Carpenter and then bringing in some experts—should get together to set up the framework to talk about these issues.

CAVANAUGH: Bill, what does this border fence issue add to the already uneven power dynamic that is perceived between the United States and Mexico?

URY: It does, I mean, it affects it. I mean, for what, from our perspective, from this side of the border seems like security and protection, you know, may be seen as rejection and exclusion. So already you’re setting up a dynamic where if you don’t make an extra effort to really extend respect, you’re going to find it difficult to elicit the kind of collaboration that you need across the border and I think what’s really important here is to see it in the whole picture. We need – it’s not either/or, it’s not security or environment, it’s security and environment. And I think that’s the key thing in negotiation is looking for those both/and solutions and that’s what I hope this conference on Greening the Borders at the School of Peace can begin to do is to kind of formulate what – where are the both/and solutions here that are actually good for both sides, good for all sides, in this conflict? And it’s not easy. This is some of the hardest work that human beings can do because it’s complex, there are many issues, there are many parties, there are many communities but it’s really the only way forward because if not, what happens is we’ll all lose. We’ll all lose. Everyone will lose. And so there’s a chance for everyone to benefit or for everyone to lose and the path is forward and I think this conference is a good first step.

CAVANAUGH: You know, we can’t, here, in San Diego, the San Diego-Tijuana area, we can’t be the only area of the world that has ever deal with a pollution problem at the border.

URY: Right.

CAVANAUGH: How have other nations…

URY: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …dealt with similarly touchy sort of border pollution situations?

URY: Well, the conference is actually really focusing on that and bringing in experts. For example, there’s been a lot of progress on the U.S.-Canadian border, for one, where very similar kinds of issues that have gone back decades and so on. Water issues, issues, even environmental issues of acid rain and so on that have been effectively addressed. The conference is also bringing in, as I understand from Michel here, experts from India, looking at India-Bangladesh, the water issues, and also, very importantly in the Middle East where I’m particularly focused right now because, you know, you have the Jordan River basin, you have a lot of scarce water between Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and water is – Water, to me, is – increasingly will be at the core of many of the severe political conflicts that we face in the decade to come.

CAVANAUGH: Well, that Jordan-Israel, that’s got to trump us in tension. I mean…

BOUDRIAS: You know, it’s interesting, we were having this discussion about the fact that we’re calling this a conflict resolution and a working conference. There really isn’t that much of a strong conflict between the U.S. and Mexico because both sides of the border, in this case, want clean water. They want this to be resolved. And you’re right, there are political issues that are much more difficult to handle and one of the reasons why we tried to do something different is we have three major panels at the conference. The first will really sort of set the scientific table and kind of the concepts that are there, the sort of environmental side and that’s this afternoon. Tomorrow, we’ve brought in experts who have dealt with these issues in other places to say here are areas even more conflicted than us in some ways, with similar kinds of water restrictions, particularly if you think of the Israel-Palestine-Jordan area, very similar climate in many ways to what we have here. How have they done it? How has that worked? And that part of the conference is a little bit more on the conflict resolution side. How have they dealt with the diplomacy? And then we bring back the conference to let’s now refocus on our border. The other thing I want to say about the conference that’s a little bit different, at least we hope, is that it’s not just going to be a bunch of talking heads. That’s what often happens at these conferences. They get together and they talk, everybody listens, and everybody goes away and we’re done. We’ve really tried to balance the presentation side with some real work, some workshops, and the last day of the conference is at the border. We’re going to be at the Tijuana River Natural Research Center. We’re going to be bringing the delegates from all these different groups to the border, and that day is not a talking day as far as presentations, it’s a talking to each other day, it’s a listening day, it’s a let’s bring all these people, some of whom have done a lot of great work already, let’s bring all the new ideas now and work together.

CAVANAUGH: Bill, I’m interested in what you said about the fact you think water is becoming a major issue around the world. Talk to us a little bit more about that.

URY: Well, you know, the world population is rapidly expanding. We have climate change, for example, which is affecting the patterns of water. I mean, you look at conflicts like even, let’s say, the conflict in Darfur in Sudan, that’s, in some ways, indirectly is caused by environmental shifts and drying up of regions and then you have refugee populations and then you’ve got all kinds of political problems and you have wars. And so you can’t draw a line between environmental issues and political issues anymore. We have to look at them together and we have to figure this out together, and right now even in a larger scale, I think, you know, the citizens here in San Diego, we can learn from – and the citizens in Mexico can learn from cross-border cooperation, something that, as a globe, as a humanity, we’re going to have to learn right now as we’re about to enter this conference in Copenhagen around climate change, a global conference around – We’re facing some very serious disruptive shifts in our climate. And climate is not just the sky, it’s everything, it’s the food we eat. Every thing that we do is about to go through a radical shift, and either we can work that together collaboratively to minimize the impact and actually to maximize the opportunity or our children and ourselves are going to pay a very heavy cost.

CAVANAUGH: I believe we have time to take a call. Marcy is on the line from Point Loma. Good morning, Marcy, and welcome to These Days.

MARCY (Caller, Point Loma): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just have a quick question and comment and it’s regarding the maquiladoras along the border and what affects you believe that’s having because I know that they don’t have to follow the same environmental laws, and I just know from the past that they do a lot of polluting. And if you could answer that and also how that – how NAFTA plays into that. I know that they have strict rules about regulating business and that affects the pollution. And I also have one more thing to say but when I do talk about this topic with people and friends, a lot of what I hear is, well, the Mexican government lets us do that, lets people do that. And I just think that we need to take responsibility as American citizens that so because a country allows something, we are still, in effect, doing it. So I just think that’s something that people should think about. And I just would take your comments off the air, and thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Marcy. Would you like to comment on her remarks?

BOUDRIAS: I think your last point almost answered the question yourself and that is, yes, we do have issues with less or different environmental regulation in other countries like, in this case, with Mex – with the maquiladoras but they’re mostly companies that have belonged to U.S. corporations or to Japanese corporations. And we do need to take responsibility and I think this is what we’re trying to get across here is the fact that it’s a border is really just an imaginary line that’s there. If we, as Americans, say let’s use other countries to do our dirty work from an environmental perspective, then we need to take the responsibility and work with them to improve the condition on both sides. And so I think that’s where some of the responsibility really does sit. I think that’s why we want to try to get the people to work together and not say, oh, it’s their fault for polluting the water or it’s our fault. It’s not – that’s not the issue. The issue is it’s polluted; we need to fix it.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested in what the goal is of this conference. Bill says, you know, this is not a negotiation, this is a framework basically for a negotiation. What would – action would you like to see come out of this conference?

BOUDRIAS: Well, the first thing, and it’s one of the sort of the bigger, broader goals, we hope this is not a conference and then we’re done. We’d really would like this to be a one – one of a series that maybe the other institutions here, San Diego State or UCSD or the institutions across the border would continue the dialogue so that we can at least have this sort of continuous level of preparing negotiations and continuing them. I think the other thing we want to come up with is really some concrete steps. What can we do? Who do we need to engage? And, you know, do we need to engage the politicians in a much stronger way to discuss very openly and very seriously the issue of the border fence from a security side and the border fence from an environmental side. And we’re hoping that by putting it up there and actually having some people who may have some very controversial ideas, that we will actually get to a resolution that says, okay, it’s time for these people to get together and really do the negotiation step.

CAVANAUGH: We are out of time but I want to thank you both so much for joining us today. Michel Boudrias, thank you.

BOUDRIAS: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And William Ury, thanks so much for coming in and speaking with us.

URY: It’s my pleasure.

BOUDRIAS: My pleasure, Maureen, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know William Ury will speak at the Greening Borders: Cooperation, Security and Diplomacy conference at the University of San Diego this evening at 7:00. The conference runs through Friday. You can go to for more information. And if you’d like to post your comments about this topic, also Stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes right here on KPBS.