How neutral are river basin organizations?

By Sander Meijerink and Dave Huitema – In their book ‘Embracing watershed politics’, Schlager and Blomquist state  that: “For the last 25 years, prescriptions of the water policy literature have centered upon two themes. The first is that ‘the watershed’ is the appropriate scale for organizing water resource management […]. The second is that since watersheds are regions to which political jurisdictions almost never correspond, and watershed-scale decision making structures do not usually exist, they should be created.” Indeed, organizations such as the International Network of Basin Organizations, the Global Water Partnership and the World Resources Institute all stress the important contribution that watershed or river basin organizations (RBOs) can make to realizing Integrated Water Resources Management.

Schlager and Blomquist who analyzed the design and performance of watershed organizations in the USA emphasize the highly political nature of designing RBOs. First, they suggest that the boundaries of river basins are not necessarily so clear or “natural”.  The idea of “the” river basin suggests a certain simplicity, which in reality does not exist as river basins are connected – sometimes by human intervention- and nested. This means that defining the boundaries of a basin requires choice, and this implies a role for politics. Different boundaries imply different decision makers and different effects. Some communities may lose local control, whereas others may gain more control. Other political issues concern the tasks and responsibilities for the new organization because they often come to the cost of general purpose organizations, such as regions and provinces. Thirdly,  governance scholars draw attention to the fact that after founding a river-basin organization, it becomes necessary to formulate decision-making arrangements. Two available alternatives mentioned in this respect are consensus and elite decision making. According to Schlager and Blomquist consensus decision making draws the risk of gridlock, whereas elite decision making may result, among other things, in the exploitation or oppression of minorities.

Another scholar who has pointed to the political nature of designing RBOs is Francois Molle who studied the evolution of river basin organizations. The history of river basin organizations as told by Molle suggests that since the “discovery” of the river basin and the “invention” of the river basin organization in Western thinking (the Chinese were much earlier), the concept has been “used and appropriated by various constituencies to reorder configurations of power”. The point made here is that proposals to introduce river basin organizations tend to come from parties who are motivated to change existing institutions and reorder powers in decision making. This insight is not uncontroversial, as many advocates of river basin organizations see their ideas as politically neutral and based on objective evidence, suggesting that river basin organizations are more effective, efficient, etc. Our point is that such neutrality does not exist in reality. Indeed, suggesting that river basin organizations will bring improvement of sorts in comparison with the existing situation, requires a normative position on what constitutes such an improvement. Terms like effectiveness and efficiency suggest neutrality, but applying them actually necessitates the expression of goals: effective in which respect, and efficient in achieving what exactly? The history of river basin organizations shows that these organizations have been put forward to accomplish quite a variegating set of goals. Associated with utopian ideas of the late 19th century, the concept was associated with ideas of full control of the hydrological regime and multipurpose dam construction in the 1930-1970 period, then partly faded and was revived to address water-quality problems, before reemerging in the 1990s as the cornerstone of IWRM, enriched and blended with watershed- and ecosystem- management approaches. RBOs have thus been proposed to further holistic economic development and poverty alleviation, to serve agriculture and power generation, but also to further ecological goals.  In all of those cases, the foundation of the river basin organization in question is subsequently not neutral at all, as certain goals would be elevated over others when they are founded indeed.

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