Governing International Watercourses

Schmeier, Susanne.
Governing International Watercourses. River Basin Organizations and the sustainable governance of internationally shared rivers and lakes. New York: Routledge. 2012.


For effectively governing internationally shared natural resources and the environment, institutions matter. The thesis approaches this academic assumption from a water-specific perspective, investigating at the same time whether and to what extent River Basin Organizations (RBOs), established for governing shared river and lake basins, matter and, moreover, which factors determine the degree of their contribution to effective governance.

On the basis of a comprehensive analytical framework developed by combining different theoretical approaches in order to take into consideration the complexity of water resources governance as well as broad empirical analyses that cover the entire universe of RBOs as well as three specific cases, the thesis provides a somewhat counterintuitive finding: Even under highly adverse exogenous conditions, characterized by highly complex collective action problems and/or conflict-prone constellations of actors, RBOs can ensure effective river basin governance in terms of political stability, environmental sustainability and socioeconomic development of the watercourse, its basin and its populations. The extent to which they do so depends largely on their institutional design.

The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) is thereby found to possess the most effectiveness-conducive institutional design, being highly effective especially with regard to ensuring political stability and environmental sustainability. The importance of the institutional design becomes even more evident in the Mekong River Basin. Although exogenous conditions are highly adverse due to a high problem complexity and a particularly unfavorable constellation of actors, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has in many respects been successful in governing the river basin due to its constructive organizational set-up and the river basin governance mechanisms it provides to its member states. On the other hand, RBOs can fail to ensure effective river basin governance even under conditions of limited complexity if their institutional design lacks key design components and river basin governance mechanisms. This becomes evident in the case of the Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal (OMVS). Despite of collective action problems of limited complexity and a high commitment of riparian states to regional cooperation to and beyond water resources, achievements in terms of goal-attainment remain limited, while OMVS’ impact is disastrous, especially along the environmental sustainability and social development dimension of effectiveness.

Overall, the results of the thesis do not only confirm institutionalist claims that institutions matter, but also shed light on both how we know that an institution matters and on the different factors determining the extent to which they matter. In doing so, the thesis also looks into the black box of RBOs, going beyond the institutionalist claim that institutions matter and focusing on the different RBO-internal mechanisms through which they do so. It therefore makes an important contribution not only to institutionalist theory development and refinement, but also provides important lessons learned to policy makers working on the more sustainable governance of internationally shared watercourses for the well-being of riparian populations and states.

Water System