Disputes over International Watercourses: Can River Basin Organizations make a Difference?

The following essay by Sabine Blumstein and Susanne Schmeier is a summary of a recently published book chapter titled “Disputes Over International Watercourses: Can River Basin Organizations make a Difference?”. Ms. Blumstein works as a Project Manager at adelphi. Ms. Schmeier is Coordinator for Transboundary Water Management at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). They can be contacted at: blumstein[at]adelphi.de.


Book coverDisagreements or even full-fledged disputes over the use of water resources in shared basins have increasingly made headlines in the past years. Developments in the Mekong, Nile, Syr Darya, Indus and other basins have led more and more scholars, as well as policy-makers and journalists, to warn of the risk of water conflicts or even wars. This revives – albeit in a more informed manner – the water wars debate of the early 1990s. While much progress has been made since then – especially through the creation and institutionalization of cooperative arrangements in many shared basins – disputes nonetheless continue to occur. And they do occur even in basins with River Basin Organizations (RBOs) in place, which have often been set up to solve, mitigate or prevent such disputes.

However, research on transboundary river basin management as well as empirical evidence from basins around the world suggest that RBOs do make a difference. They provide a variety of direct and indirect mechanisms for dispute resolution, as discussed in a recently published chapter which appeared in “Management of Transboundary Water Resources under Scarcity. A Multidisciplinary Approach”. In this chapter, the authors shed light on how RBOs engage in the solution of disputes that arise over water resources in transboundary basins. And they show that it is not dispute-resolution mechanisms in the narrow sense – often identified as the key if not the only instruments RBOs provide – that make a difference in whether a conflict is solved peacefully in a cooperative manner. Instead, it is the broader cooperative framework of RBOs that matters.

The authors review existing dispute resolution mechanisms of international RBOs around the world in a comprehensive manner. Their research indicates that more than 50% of the 121 analyzed RBOs have a dispute resolution mechanism in place – seemingly a good starting point. Among those, they identify three broader categories of RBO dispute resolution mechanisms: bilateral negotiations between those RBO members involved in a disagreement; RBO-internal mechanisms; and external actors’ involvement. Often, states have opted to establish more than one step in the respective dispute-resolution mechanism, structuring the processes in two instances with different mechanisms to be applied. For instance, bilateral negotiation between disputing parties (facilitated by the RBO) are often followed by a possible engagement of external actors – both 3rd party mediators and judicial ones.

The authors also provide explanations for why dispute resolution mechanisms vary around the world (in terms of existence in the first place, but also in design). Often, it is the history of cooperation (also beyond the water sector) that determines both the existence as well as the exact design of dispute resolution mechanisms. The high share of dispute resolution mechanisms in African RBOs, for example, can be explained by the past conflicts found in many African basins as well as the high presence of international donors, which often consider well-defined dispute-resolution mechanisms as a prerequisite for successful cooperation. In Europe, on the other hand, the existence of cooperation mechanisms (including specific instruments for solving disputes) in many issue-areas has limited the need for well-defined dispute resolution mechanisms within specific basins and RBOs.

Regional distribution of dispute-resolution mechanisms in RBOs

    Regional distribution of dispute-resolution mechanisms in RBOs

In the second part of the chapter, the authors analyze two conflicts in greater detail in order to shed more light on how exactly RBOs make a difference in solving or mitigating disputes in shared basins. For the Mekong River Basin, they find that while the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) dispute resolution mechanisms themselves (see Art. 34 and 35 of the 1995 Mekong Agreement) might seem insufficient for addressing issues as complex as recent hydropower developments and related inter-state conflicts, the MRC provides ample other tools for ensuring that such disputes get addressed in a cooperative manner and on the basis of comprehensive technical data and information. Although having been criticized by many scholars, the MRC’s Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) and the processes established around them (e.g. the identification of environmental and socioeconomic baselines, the establishment of guidelines for impact mitigation, etc.) have ensured that disagreements have been handled in a rather cooperative manner. This is particularly obvious if compared to similar situations of unilateral hydropower development in other basins around the world.

For the Nile River Basin, the authors find that the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) did not directly contribute to diplomatic negotiations or any other form of direct resolution of the conflict around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which can partly be explained by the absence of any NBI dispute resolution mechanism. In addition, the lack of any notification mechanism or requirement to exchange data/information on planned infrastructure measures which could potentially impact downstream countries, prevented the NBI to play any significant role in averting the dispute in the first place. Despite this limited role in conflict prevention and direct diplomatic engagement, NBI played an important role in defusing the conflict through broader activities around data and information sharing and increasingly distributing this knowledge to the broader public. The RBO’s activities regarding knowledge distribution and more neutral reporting through national media is an important contribution to de-securitize national discourses around the construction of GERD and hence a precondition for any final resolution of the dispute.

While the findings reveal that the existence of specific dispute resolution mechanisms in a narrow sense does not necessarily influence the success of dispute resolution and depends on a number of other intervening factors, RBOs as a whole do matter in 2addressing water-related conflicts. This is because RBOs provide a range of instruments beyond pure dispute resolution mechanisms: amongst others, they provide platforms for negotiation and exchange, data and information exchange or notification procedures. These instruments are of key importance to solve, contain or even prevent conflicts. Water practitioners and policy actors should therefore not exclusively focus on the specific dispute resolution mechanisms provided by RBOs but be aware of and actively use the broader repertoire of governance instruments provided by RBOs to avoid and solve evolving disputes in transboundary river basins.


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