International River Basin Organizations: a new book bridging policy and science

Susanne Schmeier and Anoulak Kittikhoun present their new edited volume on international river basin organisations. The book is the result of conversations and collaborations between researchers and decision-makers that look at different river basins to reflect on the role of these organizations in governing shared waters.

Pollution challenges in the Yamuna River in India (Photo: S. Schmeier)

International basin organizations have gained prominence in the past years as they aim to manage shared river and lake basins which face mounting challenges from increasing water use, rapid infrastructure development or global climate change. Far from being merely technical organizations staffed with water engineers and managers, basin organizations – as international organizations tasked to manage their basins on the basis of agreed upon principles, norms, rules and governance mechanisms (Schmeier et al. 2015) – are key platforms for and mechanisms of water diplomacy.

A new edited volume investigates this so far often overlooked role of basin organizations: The book “River Basin Organizations in Water Diplomacy”, edited by IHE’s Susanne Schmeier and Anoulak Kittikhoun from the Mekong River Commission, offers a comparative perspective on river basin organizations’ role in governing internationally shared water resources, identifying and implementing mutually acceptable water resources use and protection measures and preventing, mitigating or resolving disputes. The book was born out of a long-standing collaboration and friendship between many of the chapter authors and especially the two editors, jointly aspiring to move the discussion on shared basins ahead and to bridge between science and policy. It also reflects many of the heated discussions the editors and many of the authors had, at numerous occasions and in many of the beautiful basins around the world, about what basin organizations should do and realistically can do – in light of their mandates and responsibilities or financial constraints, but also given the often challenging political context in which they operate.  

The Elbe River downstream of the Czech-German border (Photo: S. Schmeier)

The book addresses a number of open questions that trouble researchers and policy-makers in shared basins alike. Under which conditions can basin organizations engage in water diplomacy? How do context variables – from power dynamics to regional cooperation frameworks, and from the influence of third parties to hydrological characteristics – determine whether and to what extent basin organizations actually do engage in water diplomacy? Which governance mechanisms, tools and approaches do they need to do so actively and effectively? And which outcomes has such engagement led to in different basins and why do these outcomes differ considerably around the world?

The book proposes a novel approach to assessing the water diplomacy capacity of basin organizations (or other institutionalized forms of cooperation in shared basins) by combining previous research on water diplomacy (Islam/Repella 2015; Molnar et al. 2017; Grech-Madin et al. 2018; Schmeier 2018; Klimes et al. 2019) and on international basin organizations (Schmeier 2013; Huitema/Meijerink 2014; Schmeier et al. 2015; Saruchera/Lautze 2016; Milman/Gerlak 2020) with a comprehensive understanding of different basins. In order to understand basin organization’s role in water diplomacy, both the legal mandate and institutional set-up of a basin organization and its strategic and technical mechanisms need to be understood. A basin organization’s legal mandate (expressed through legally binding agreements that determine the legal framework based on which riparians cooperate and establish the organization) and subsequent legal and political instruments (that further specify legal principles and the organization’s operation), and its institutional set-up (governing bodies, financing, etc.) determine the basis on which water diplomacy can be conducted – by member states and by the organization and its different parts and personnel. Strategic and technical mechanisms – including the development of basin management plans, the development of joint visions for a basin, the management of notification processes for planned measures, the application of dispute-resolution mechanisms or the exchange of data and information – provide the instruments for doing so. Together, the book argues, they determine whether and with which effectiveness basin organizations engage in water diplomacy.

The different chapters assess different basins – including the Aral Sea, the Congo, the Danube, the Great Lakes, the Jordan, the Mekong, the Niger and the Nile basins – on the basis of this framework, aiming at answering some of the most pertinent questions on basin organizations’ role in water diplomacy. The contributions are written by renowned academics as well as decision-makers, representatives of basin organizations, civil society and the donor community, providing a unique perspective that combines scientific advances from different disciplines with policy experiences from various regions and types of organizations. The process of compiling the edited volume has strengthened dialogue between the world’s basins and allowed for sharing lessons – among chapter authors and with a broader community, for instance through joint events such as at the 2019 Stockholm World Water Week.

Boatman in the Mekong Delta, an area heavily affected by upstream developments (Photo: S. Schmeier)

Key findings and lessons from the book reflect, first, a great variety of basins and basin organizations, partly determined by hydrological, ecological, socioeconomic, political and cultural features of the respective basins; secondly, the so far underestimated importance of continuous development of legal and institutional frameworks in order to remain fit for purpose and up to the basins’ changing challenges; thirdly, the particularly important role of basin organization secretariats, that often play an active role beyond merely administering member states’ inputs and can significantly strengthen cooperation or become a key impediment to it themselves; and fourthly, the linkages between science and policy and the role that basin organizations play in bridging between them in order to ensure that decisions on water resources use and protection are driven by shared knowledge and a joint understanding of the basin, a key element in conflict prevention and mitigation.

Altogether, the book hopes to inspire future research in water diplomacy and on international basin organizations – and a more integrated approach between the two – and to inform decision-makers in shared basins on how to make the most of their basin organizations for regional sustainable development, cooperation and peace. It thus hopes to reach a wide readership within but especially also beyond the academic (transboundary) water governance community. Moreover, it hopes to provide food for thought for future discussions among a diverse group of actors involved or interested in shared basins.

The publication has benefited from the generous support of IHE Delft, the Mekong River Commission and the DUPC 2 Water Diplomacy Project, financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.    


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