River basin organisations: an anchor for water diplomacy?

A new article by Susanne Schmeier and Zaki Shubber discusses the role of river basin organisations in water diplomacy. A better understanding of the legal nature of these organisations is key to design institutions that can effectively contribute to water peace and cooperation.

Water diplomacy has received growing attention in the past years, both by policy makers concerned about a potential increase in conflicts over shared water resources (OSCE 2014; EU 2018) and by researchers studying the dynamics in transboundary basins (Susskind/Islam 2012; Grech-Madin et al. 2018; Yasuda et al. 2018). In this context river basin organizations (RBOs) are increasingly regarded as key actors in water diplomacy as they are considered to provide a vital platform for riparian engagement.

Joint institutions for shared waters and their objectives of cooperation have been in the minds of water managers and lawyers for over two centuries. Indeed, the concept of institutional anchoring of cooperation between riparians began to develop in the early 19th century already with the Treaty of Vienna of 1815 and the establishment of the Rhine and Danube commissions (though at the time the focus was principally on matters of navigation).

Today policy makers emphasizing the need for cooperation in order to address pressing challenges over shared water resources around the world have called on RBOs to take leading roles in reconciling riparian states’ often competing interests in shared water resources and increasingly acting on the diplomatic level in addition to the purely technical. Moreover, RBOs have also become increasingly (pro-)active themselves. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), for instance, has labelled itself a key actor in water diplomacy (MRC 2016). This has also been reflected by researchers studying conflict and cooperation over shared water resources who are gradually integrating water diplomacy into their analyses (Schmeier 2016, Molnar et al. 2017).

But what does it take for RBOs to fulfil these – often very high – expectations to be effective anchors for water diplomacy in shared basins? And how does the very nature of RBOs, expressed in their legal nature and their institutional design, affect their roles as water diplomats?

Questions relating to the legal features of RBOs and their consequences for the functioning of RBOs – especially in water diplomacy – remain largely unanswered, both from an academic and a policy perspective. Yet, they are essential for policy makers wanting to design RBOs that can effectively fulfil their mandate beyond mere technical cooperation and act as anchors for water diplomacy in contested basins. Therefore, the inner workings of RBOs, in other words the rules and procedures that regulate their internal manner of operating and the nature of their relationship with external actors, need to be considered carefully as they are being designed or changed over time in reform processes.

Local transport, Vietnam (Credit: WorldFish/Jamie Oliver)

A recently published article (Schmeier and Shubber 2018) focuses precisely on key legal features of RBOs from a public international law perspective, and from the point of view of the law of international organisations, given their international nature. It explores how they influence RBOs’ ability to effectively pursue water diplomacy and thus provides guidance for both further research on water diplomacy and for policy-makers designing or reforming RBOs as water diplomacy actors.

Features examined include the legal personality of RBOs, their law-making powers, their institutional set-up, their privileges and immunities, and matters relating to seat agreements, as well as other internal legal and administrative matters. The legal personality of an RBO, for instance, might seem to many as a legal detail that international lawyers deal with on the sides during the overall process of establishing institutionalized forms of cooperation. However, legal personality insufficiently clarified or lacking – with regard to other states and international organizations as well as with regards to its host country – can seriously impede the RBO’s functioning by preventing it from entering into any agreements with other countries (or contracts with their bilateral donor agencies) or with other international organizations (including multilateral development banks and other funders). This can also limit their ability to act as acknowledged actors in situations of conflict and thus as water diplomats. An insufficiently clear seat agreement, another element most water policy-makers and managers generally tend not to take into consideration, can significantly impact on the operations of an RBO by preventing it from purchasing equipment, employing staff or relying on safe housing.

Presenting a number of examples from around the world, the article highlights the importance of better understanding the legal nature of RBOs – especially when assigning RBOs new or additional responsibilities in the field of water diplomacy. Indeed, it appears that not every RBO may be equipped with the features it would need to fulfil a water diplomacy role assigned to it or that it is implicitly expected to fulfil. Additionally, the article highlights that such an understanding is crucial not only for a small community of international lawyers, but particularly for those working in or with RBOs and expecting these RBOs to deliver on certain objectives. Only well-designed RBOs will be able to effectively pursue water diplomacy and thus contribute to the peaceful, cooperative and sustainable management of shared water resources. 

Here you can read the full article:
Schmeier, S. & Z. Shubber (2018): Anchoring water diplomacy – The legal nature of international river basin organizations, Journal of Hydrology 567, 114-120


Grech-Madin, C., Döring, S., Kim, K. & Swain, A. (2018): Negotiating water across levels: A peace and conflict ‘‘Toolbox” for water diplomacy, Journal of Hydrology, 55, 9, 100-109

Molnar, K., Cuppari, R., Schmeier, S. & Demuth, S. (2017): Preventing Conflicts, Fostering Cooperation – The many Roles of Water Diplomacy, Koblenz: International Centre for Water Resources and Global Change/Stockholm International Water Institute

MRC (2016): Strategic Plan 2016-2020, Vientiane: MRC Secretariat, http://www.mrcmekong.org/assets/Publications/strategies-workprog/MRC-Stratigic-Plan-2016-2020.pdf

OSCE (2014): Water Diplomacy, https://www.osce.org/sg/120614

Schmeier, S. (2016): Water Diplomacy: Opportunities and Risks for RBOs, Stockholm: Stockholm International Water Institute

Susskind, L. & Islam, S. (2012): Water Diplomacy: Creating Value and Building Trust in Transboundary Water Negotiations, Science & Diplomacy, 1, 3, http://www.sciencediplomacy.org/perspective/2012/water-diplomacy

Yasuda, Y., Hill, D., Aich, D., Huntjens, P., Swain, A. (2018): Multi-track water diplomacy: current and potential future cooperation over the Brahmaputra River Basin, Water International, 43,5, https://doi.org/10.1080/02508060.2018.1503446

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