Danube Watch 3/2020 - Can River Basin Organizations be effective in managing shared basins in light of all the challenges they face?


Can River Basin Organizations be effective in managing shared basins in light of all the challenges they face? Lessons from River Basin Organizations around the world

a body of water with a mountain in the background a conference room from the back

Rivers are a natural resource that have been a focal point of transboundary governance for centuries. It is challenging to manage them for the benefit of riparian communities – especially if they are transboundary. This requires the development of a water infrastructure to harvest the socioeconomic benefits, while at the same time protecting the ecosystem for future generations. River Basin Organizations (RBOs) have been established in many of the world’s basins to better coordinate different stakeholders’ actions and foster cooperation instead of conflict. Based on the experiences of several RBOs worldwide, several key characteristics for their effectiveness can be identified.

River Basin Organizations (RBOs) fulfill a variety of functions – ranging from water allocation to the management of fisheries, from addressing water pollution to the promotion of navigation. The main goal of these efforts is to ensure that cooperation prevails over competition, or even conflict, over shared resources, and that problems that individual states alone cannot address, are nonetheless managed in a sustainable manner.

However, RBOs have not always been successful at this. And they have been called paper tigers at times – with journalists, policy makers and academics criticizing them for not living up to the high expectations that some had towards them. Sometimes, conflicts between riparian states persist. Sometimes, ecosystem deterioration continues. Sometimes, the potential for water resources development, and the subsequent socioeconomic benefits for riparian communities, is often not fully utilized.

So, what are the key characteristics that make RBOs effective?
In a study * conducted by the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) in collaboration with other RBOs, a number of features have been identified that determine whether an RBO can effectively fulfil its work. These features relate to the legal framework an RBO is based on, and the mandate it’s been given by its member states, the way it is set up, the way in which decision are taken and joint perspectives are achieved, the way and the extent to which they share data and information as a basis for informed management, as well as the financial means RBOs have at hand to conduct their work.

The first feature is the legal framework upon which an RBO operates. Often the legal framework is rooted in international water law or a broader legal framework, thus founding the RBO and its work on a sound basis of principles, rules, rights and obligations for all actors involved. Equally important is the mandate of an RBO, which determines the parameters it covers, such as water quantity and quality, fisheries, environmental protection, or hydropower development. Mandates can range between a narrow or broad scope. While the narrow-scale RBOs can be swift and highly efficient, the broader-scale RBOs can address challenges in a more comprehensive matter. The ICPDR is an example of an RBO with a narrow scope, focusing mainly on the water status and the flood protection of the Danube River Basin. The mandate of the OMVS (Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal) however, is very broad and has a strong focus on using water resources for socio-economic development. Only when the mandate of an RBO covers the key river basin management issues in the basin, can its work be effective.

a man sitting on a boat

“A cardinal function of an RBO is to build a common understanding of the particular water resources challenges faced in that river basin and forms the foundation for unravelling the desired shared destiny.”- Lenka Thamae (ORASECOM)

Also essential to any effective RBO is its organizational set-up. Usually, an RBO has a governance or decision-making body (Council or Commission) through which member states’ representatives regularly meet to jointly decide on the usage, the development, and the protection of the basin’s resources. Often, RBOs also have lower-level technical bodies that translate more general political guidance into actionable tasks. The ABN (Niger Basin Authority) consists of a variety of organizational bodies, the highest level being constituted by a Summit of Heads of State and Government – a governance level rarely found with RBOs. ORASECOM (Orange-Senqu River Commission) on the other hand, has a rather lean organizational structure. In this context, good links between the basin-level and the national level in the member states are also required. The functioning of this set-up within and between individual organizational body largely determines how smoothly decisions can be made, and work implemented.

Decision-making processes are vital for effectiveness. Only if riparian states in the basin are able to make joint decisions about how to manage, develop and protect the basin and its resources, can long term sustainable and cooperative development be possible. This concerns the principles of how decisions can get made (by majority, consensus, or unanimity) and the timeframes of these processes. Of particular importance to a solid decision-making structure is having dispute-resolution plans in place, through which member states of an RBO aim at overcoming differences and arriving at a shared decision.

Managing shared basins requires a sound understanding of the state of water resources, the key water management issues they are facing and the effects of management actions. Data and information – and their sharing among states – is therefore crucial. The ICPDR for example coordinates the Trans-National Monitoring Network (TNMN), providing information on the Danube River Basin’s waters based on many parameters, a well-known example for how data can be shared in a well-established manner, providing all states with the same understanding of the challenges and the solutions available.

The last key feature of an effective RBO is solid financing. The lack of necessary financial means can significantly impede an RBO’s effectiveness. Moreover, the way the financial burden is shared among members can influence their commitment to the RBO and cooperation overall.

The effectiveness of an RBO thus depends on a combination of different factors, which need to be considered as a whole and in their entirety. The way individual factors influence each other when, for instance, a lack of effective decision-making leads to shortcomings in data availability or insufficiently clear dispute-resolution mechanisms, cannot help when solving disputes that arise over an RBO’s mandate. While this isn’t a formula for any RBO, it’s definitely a good place to start.

Dr. Susanne Schmeier LLM,
is an Associate Professor of Water Law and Diplomacy at IHE Delft

Ruben Vermeer,
is Project Assistant at IHE Delft