Book review: Governing international watercourses by Susanne Schmeier

This article presents a review of the book 'Governing international watercourses' by Susanne Schmeier - a book that has been called 'a stunning piece of work' by Aaron T. Wolf. The author examines the river basin organisation as a key institution for managing international watercourses. The book follows a three-part structure of developing theory, refining it, and then discussing three case studies. By emphasizing that more trans-boundary events are focused on cooperation rather than on conflict- with a far smaller percentage being violent conflict - it carries a message of hope.

Cover of the book ' Governing International Watercourses' by Susanne Schmeier

The introduction presents the format of this book. It opens by presenting a review of the work done so far. The chapter examines the evolution of discourse related to international water courses including the discussions related to relevant institutional organizations and the conflict-cooperation debate. It is in this chapter that Schmeier points out the overwhelming prevalence of attempts at cooperation over transboundary water as opposed to conflict.

PART I: Theory of international river basin governance

Building a theory of river basin governance effectiveness:
This chapter develops a theoretical model for examining the effectiveness of RBOs. It begins by defining RBOs on the basis of their institutional nature, rather than as is commonly done, on the nature of their  mandate. Schmeier defines a  RBO's effectiveness on the basis of effectiveness level, scope, and range which are illustrated in the chart below.

The chapter presents an overview of the problems and the concerned actors in its discussion of exogenous determinants. In relation to these, it postulates seven hypotheses linking effectiveness to the complexity of the problem, its strategic importance, the nature of the questions up for discussion, the nature of the 'goods' or benefits being contested, the position of the situation in Game theory, the power structure among the riparians, and the existing level of cooperation.

Further, Schmeier considers the influence of institutional design characteristics on RBO effectiveness. Here too, she presents hypotheses discussing the impact the following have on RBO effectiveness: Proportion of riparians involved in the process, the scope of the RBO's mandate, their reliance on explicitly stated principles of international water law, level of legalization, differentiated organizational setup, presence of secretariats, access to sufficient financial resources, mechanism of ensuring financial sustainability, mechanism of decision making, mechanism for  data exchange, monitoring practices, dispute resolution platforms, and coordination with other regional institutions.

PART II: The empirics of international river basin governance
River basin organizations around the world
View at the mouth of Kading river joining Mekong116 River basin organizations governing shared watercourses are identified, mapped and analysed in this chapter.This mapping also provides an insight into the main problems faced by river governing institutions, which have been classified in 12 categories. Water quantity problems are not only the most frequent, but also the most difficult to solve, or the most malign. The twelve broad problem categories are sorted along a continuum ranging from the most malign to the most benign. The effectiveness of RBOs varies with the malignity of the problems it faces.

Similarly, this varies with the nature and location of the hegemons as is only too well illustrated in the case of the Ganga, where India and Bangladesh have polarized views on the means of governing the waters. In a similar fashion, Schmeier uses the examples of other rivers to refine the hypotheses postulated in the preceding chapter. She emphasizes that there is evidence that adverse circumstances do not hamper the effective governance of watercourses, which further proves the initial hypothesis of this book, that the institutional design of river basin organizations has an impact on governance. Additional details of the river basin organizations studied in the course of writing this book can be obtained online at the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database (TFDD)

PART III: Case Studies
The hypotheses first developed and later refined in the course of this book are now tested on three river basins in this chapter.These are:

  • The Mekong River Basin and the MRC
  • The Danube Basin and the ICPDR
  • The Senegal Basin and the OMVS

Analysis of these three basins has been carried out on the basis of information gathered from several secondary sources. In addition, semi-structured interviews have been carried out with various stakeholders. These case studies present a comprehensive picture of the basin areas, issues concerning the basins, and the governance structures that are instituted in the basin. Schmeier presents a thoughtful analysis of the effectiveness of each RBO as well as the external and internal factors that contribute to that particular level of effectiveness.

The appendices present information about the basins studied in this book, summarize the main points, and also present more general information about RBO functions and secretariat functions.

This book offers the reader an overview of- as it promises- the factors governing RBO effectiveness. It also when read in conjunction with TFDD is a valuable storehouse of painstakingly collected and analysed information about transboundary watercourses and the organizations that govern them. In this respect, it promises to be of immense value  to students and researchers looking for data on transboundary rivers.

Published 30th November 2012 by Routledge – 368 pages.