Dispute Over a Sacred Stream: Villagers Describe the Conflict

Social issues

Notes to broadcasters

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When two groups are in conflict, sometimes they cannot even agree on what the source of conflict is. Giving each group the opportunity to describe what the conflict is about can be the first step towards resolving it. A mediator can help people take this first step.

Invite a mediator to appear on your program to discuss conflict over a common resource, such as land, water or forest. That person could be a village elder or a professional mediator — someone who is not involved in the conflict, but is trusted by both sides. Invite listeners to write or phone in to the program and express their opinions. Read their letters and and/or broadcast their phone calls. Record interviews in the field.



: Mediator
: Village elder
: Young mother

: In recent programs, we have talked about issues that arise during and after conflicts like war or natural disaster. We’ve learned about [rebuilding seed supplies, growing survival crops, starting a revolving loan fund, and growing vegetables in a refugee camp]. Today’s program is about a different kind of conflict – a disagreement between two groups of villagers over the use of a natural resource: water.

Conflicts over natural resources such as land, water or forests can be difficult to solve. When two groups disagree, sometimes they can’t even agree on what they’re arguing about. In situations like these, having each group describe what the conflict is about, from their point of view, can be the first step towards resolving it. A mediator can help people take this first step.

A mediator is someone who is trusted by both groups. He or she could live in the community or have regular dealings with the community. A mediator will listen to both sides of the issue and help the groups to come to an agreement. Here are some questions the mediator will need to ask and have answered:

  • What is the disagreement about?
  • Who is involved?
  • What is the viewpoint of each side?
  • What are the needs, hopes and concerns of each side?
  • Does the conflict have a long history?
  • What power does each group have?
  • What solutions does each group have?
  • What solutions are acceptable to everyone?

Let’s listen to the story to learn how a respected farmer from a neighbouring village helped a group of villagers understand a conflict over water and take positive action to find a solution.

: My name is Samuel. A while ago, I was asked to help resolve a conflict in the village of Po, where there was a dispute about water use. I was asked because I was not involved in the conflict and both groups trusted me to be fair. When I asked people to describe the problem, everybody started talking at once. Some of the young people were yelling. They could not agree on what the problem was.

I asked the villagers to go away, and to come back with a description of the conflict. I wanted to know exactly what the argument was about. This is important. If two groups cannot agree on what they are arguing about, there is no place to begin negotiation.

: The villagers came back the next week. One representative from each side gave a short presentation, describing the problem, from their point of view. You are about to hear the two sides of the story. First you will hear Kofi, a village elder, and then you will hear from Sonia, a young mother.


: I am Kofi, from the village of Po. I am one of the village elders. In this village we are blessed with two streams. Long ago, my ancestors declared one of these streams – the most beautiful one – to be a sacred area. Since that time, to respect the Gods, nobody is allowed to visit that stream on Wednesday of every week. We have always respected that taboo. But recently, the second stream has been drying up. Because of this, some of the young people are disobeying the taboo, and they are using the sacred stream on Wednesdays. By doing so, they offend the Gods, and the stream will run dry. This cannot continue. The problem is that some villagers are offending the Gods!

: Kofi finished his speech and sat down. Sonia got up to speak.

: I am Sonia. In this village we have two beautiful streams. Recently, because of the drought, one of the streams dried up. I work hard, raising my four children, so I don’t have time to travel outside the village for water. But I need water every day. I discussed the taboo with some of my friends. We are young mothers who need water for cooking and washing. We decided that the ideas of the elders were old and outdated. We decided to ignore the taboo and use the water from the sacred stream every day, even on Wednesdays. This saves a lot of work. There are many things that the elders in this village don’t allow us to do – but their ideas aren’t useful any more. The problem is that the ideas of the elders are outdated.

: I listened carefully to the two points of view. Now it was my turn to speak. This is what I told them:

I have heard from both sides. I learned that there are two different groups represented here – the village elders and the young mothers raising their families. I also learned that these two groups do not agree on the main issue. In other words one of the problems is that you don’t agree on the problem. Remember that Kofi said:

: “The problem is that some villagers are offending the Gods.”

: But Sonia said:

: “The problem is that the ideas of the elders are old and outdated.”

: From this I learned that you do not agree on the problem. Before we can take action you must describe one problem that you have in common. Perhaps that problem is scarcity of water. If so, we can work together to resolve it.


: Several weeks later, and after much discussion, the villagers agreed that the main problem was scarcity of water. If the water from the first stream could be made to start flowing again, people would not have to visit the sacred stream on Wednesdays. During the following months, the villagers agreed to conserve water and soil along the stream bank. Many of the farmers had valuable knowledge to share about conservation.

Today the problem in the village of Po is still not solved…but at least the problem has been identified. There is less tension now, and people understand how to take positive action.


: Even though the villagers didn’t completely resolve their disagreement over the stream, with Samuel’s help they took an important first step by identifying the problem. If there is a dispute in your community, perhaps a mediator can help. Remember that a mediator should not be involved in the conflict and must be trusted by both sides to be fair. Listening to both sides of the argument and identifying one common problem will make it easier to find solutions that are acceptable to everyone.

– END –


  • Contributed by Jennifer Pittet, Thornbury, Ontario, Canada.
  • Reviewed by Daniel Buckles, PhD, Senior Program Specialist, International Development Research Council, Ottawa, Canada.

Information sources

  • “From ‘sacrilege’ to sustainability: Reforestation and organic farming in Forikrom,” Ghana. IK Notes, Number 4, January 1999. Knowledge and Learning Center, Africa Region, World Bank, 1818 H Street, NW, Room J5-171, Washington, DC 20433 USA. Email: pmohan@worldbank.org
  • “Peaceful conflict resolution is teachable: Nine steps provide the key to resolving disputes peacefully,” by Colman McCarthy. MS-Nepal Newsletter, April 2001.
  • “Describing a conflict,” Footsteps, No. 36, September 1998: Coping with Conflict. Tearfund, 100 Church Road, Teddington, Middlesex, TW11 8QE, UK. Email: footsteps@tearfund.org