Contribution by Andrea Gerlak, Susanne Schmeier and Sabine Schulze – In recent years international River Basin Organizations (RBOs) have increasingly been promoted by policy makers, international organizations and NGOs. Most of them accord RBOs a key role in the governance of internationally shared rivers and lakes and emphasize their contributions to sustainable water resources governance in shared river and lake basins. At the same time, academics have also become more interested in RBOs – equally interested in the conflict mitigation potential of these organizations in transboundary river basins and lakes. Despite the seemingly heightened attention paid to RBOs in both academic broader international water communities, the term “international River Basin Organization” is often used with little attention to its definitional or conceptual nature. It is common for researchers for example, to subsume RBOs under the broader umbrella of water institutions. Hence, it often remains unclear what we actually mean, when we talk about RBOs.This has challenged research about RBOs and RBO-related issues in both methodological and theoretical ways. It hinders transparency in case study selection and comparability of research results and furthermore limits a broader scholarly discussion of the significance of RBOs in the greater political arena. Moreover, it tends to lead to misunderstandings about what RBOs can actually deliver in water resources governance and what is beyond their sphere of influence with regard to water resources use conflicts.
A recent Working Paper for the Earth System Governance project by Susanne Schmeier, Andrea Gerlak and Sabine Schulze has addressed this challenge and developed a definition of international RBOs based on the broader theoretical work of neo-institutionalist literature and empirical findings of water governance research. It defines RBOs as: institutionalized forms of cooperation that are based on binding international agreements covering the geographically defined area of international river or lake basins characterized by principles, norms, rules and governance mechanisms.
Assessing more than 100 institutions against this definition, the authors furthermore present a list of 81 cases worldwide that can be classified as RBOs. This analysis finds that a considerable number of other institutions often considered as RBOs do not live up to the theoretically-grounded definition. This exercise seeks to provide an important step for further scholarly discussion and research about RBOs. It will particularly help to foster the comprehensive and comparative analysis of institutional arrangements in international rivers and lakes. Beyond contributions to academic writings, this research aims to better inform policy makers involved in the governance of internationally shared watercourses with a better understanding of RBOs.