Contribution by Susanne Schmeier – All over the world, international River Basin Organizations (RBOs) have been established by riparian states with the aim to more effectively and more sustainably govern and develop their shared water resources. However, as cursory evidence from around the world shows, their achievements in ensuring sustainability in the use of water resources in their respective basins varies considerably: In the Aral Sea, various attempts of institutionalized cooperation have so far not fully managed to restore the ecosystem’s health and fairly allocate water resources among riparians. Similarly, unilateral water resources development claims persist in the Nile River Basin in spite of an increasing institutionalization of water resources governance through the Nile Basin Initiative. In the Rhine River Basin, on the other hand, existing as well as newly emerging water-related challenges are most often addressed successfully and cooperatively by riparian states under the framework of the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine. Likewise, the Lake Victoria Fisheries Organization has done quite well in not only studying the state of fisheries but also in developing policy guidance to riparian countries to manage fish resources sustainably. This leaves us with a puzzle: why are some international watercourses governed successfully by RBOs ensuring the sustainable development of water resources while others face severe environmental and socioeconomic threats? That is, why do some RBOs seem to have been more successful in solving water-specific collective action problems and sustainability challenges than others?
The most straightforward answer provided by hydropolitics research draws our attention to exogenous factors present in the respective river basins. Among them, water availability or scarcity, the relevance of the river’s resources to riparian states and economies, the underlying power structures between upstream and downstream states or the intensity of broader regional cooperation are most often referred to.
However, these explanations tend to forget or at least underestimate the role institutionalized governance plays when addressing water resources challenges at the international level. Consequently, they cannot explain rather counterintuitive empirical evidence from shared watercourses with particularly challenging water resources governance problems and/or particularly problematic constellations of actors in which institutionalized cooperation has nonetheless been successful (such as in the Danube or even the Indus River Basins). Likewise, they fail to explain why in watercourses with a low complexity of exogenous conditions, RBOs have not been able to effectively govern shared water resources and ensure sustainable development (such as in the Gambia or the Senegal River Basins).
Hence, RBOs themselves seem to play a key role in successfully governing shared water resources and addressing related challenges (or in failing to do so). That is, RBOs constitute an independent explanatory factor themselves. They do so through their organizational set-up and the way they are designed as well as through the water resources governance mechanisms they provide to their riparians. Learning from more general research on international environmental institutions, it can be assumed that factors such as an RBO’s membership structure, the type of issues it deals with, the funding resources it has at hand, the way it facilitates joint decisions among its member or mitigates disputes among them as well as the extent to which it involves non-governmental stakeholders are decisive in ensuring that an RBO lives up to the expectations of riparian states when creating a means for cooperatively and sustainably governing their shared watercourse. Opening the black box of RBOs and studying these different characteristics of RBOs can therefore be particularly insightful not only for better understanding effective river basin governance but also for developing policy advice on how to ensure the sustainable development of internationally shared watercourses.
A detailed analysis of the different factors potentially influencing the success of RBOs in governing shared watercourses can be found in the book “Governing International Watercourses. River Basin Organizations and the sustainable governance of internationally shared rivers and lakes”. It provides insights into what might be understood by “successful” in governing internationally shared watercourses before studying the different explanatory factors globally and in more detail through three case studies on the Mekong, Danube and Senegal River Basins. More information can be found at this link.
The picture portrays art work by the artist Maureen Bushe.