Other River Basin Organisations

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A small boat on a river during sunset
Boat on River Niger during sunset

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.

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. 

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. In this context, good links between the basin-level and the national level in the member states are also required. 

Decision-making processes are vital for effectiveness. When riparian states in the basin are able to make joint decisions about how to manage, develop and protect the basin and its resources, long term sustainable and cooperative development will 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.