Case studies and key findings

The case studies represent a great variety of basins and their different hydrological, ecological, socioeconomic, political, and cultural features: North America (Great Lakes, Columbia, Colorado, and Rio Grande rivers), Europe (Danube and Rhine rivers), Central and West Asia (Aral Sea, Helmand river), Southeast Asia (Mekong river), Africa (Congo, Niger, Nile, and Senegal rivers), and the Middle East (Jordan river). They vary along with physical and hydrological conditions (from the arid and semi-arid Nile and Aral Sea to the water-abundant Mekong, Danube, and Rhine) and socioeconomic development (from poor regions such as Central and West Africa to rapidly industrializing Southeast Asia and developed Europe and North America). And they vary in terms of the number and size/power of riparian states, such as the Danube with 19 riparian states (including Germany), the Nile with 11 (including Egypt), the Niger with 9 (including Nigeria), or the Mekong with 6 (including China), as well as basins shared by only 2 riparian states, such as the Helmand (between Iran and Afghanistan) or the Great Lakes shared water resources (between the United States and Canada).

The analyses show that a legal basis of cooperation is a crucial factor for ensuring riparian states’ commitment to cooperation. It thus also plays an important role in conflict prevention and management. The example of the Nile indicates challenges that come with a lack of a legally binding framework, in spite of all progress made in cooperation along other avenues. Activities that foster cooperation along informal tracks, implemented by nongovernmental or scientific organizations (such as in the Jordan) or technical tracks remaining below the political level (again, in the Nile), are important but insufficient for ensuring longterm stability and reliability among riparian states. Basins with strong and well-established legal mechanisms for cooperation have proven to be particularly strong with regard to the escalation of disagreements. In the case of the Great Lakes, the complex web of legal arrangements at international, interprovincial, national, and subnational levels—in spite of all its complexity—ensures that emerging issues of contestation are quickly picked up in one of the cooperation mechanisms and dealt with before they escalate. Similarly, in the Danube and Rhine basins, the embeddedness of cooperation processes into the overall legal framework of the European Union, and the chance of noncompliance with its requirements being taken to court, ensures high levels of commitment to the prevention and resolution of conflicts.

Case studies from the Congo, Niger, and the Mekong have also highlighted the importance of subsequent developments in the legal (or the political/quasi-legal) basis of cooperation, allowing the respective riparian states to increase cooperation commitment over time. This includes the expansion of the issue-specific mandate of the RBO, such as the expansion of the mandate of the International Congo-Oubangui-Sangha Commission (CICOS), from navigation to water resources management in 2007. It also includes the specification of water resources principles, norms, and rules, as in the case of the Niger Basin Water Charter in 2008; as well as the further refinement and elaboration of certain principles, norms, and rules in the general treaty into procedural rules for river management, as in the case of the Mekong River Commission’s Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation, and Agreement.

Second, the institutional setup of RBOs influences the role RBOs play in water diplomacy. Many RBOs around the world have a high-level political decision-making body in place that brings together representatives of their member states to address matters of joint interest and issues at stake in the basin with the aim of developing joint responses. Examples include the Comité des Ministres (Ministerial Committee) of CICOS and the Ministerial Council of the MRC, as well as the Conseil des Ministres (Council of Ministers) of the NBA. Some RBOs even have a periodic summit of heads of states or governments, including the MRC (Summit of Prime Ministers), Niger Basin Authority (Summit of Heads of State and Government), and International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea (Council of the Heads of States). Such organizational bodies constitute important fora in times of disagreement or dispute, as they ensure continuous communication between disagreeing parties in a confined and regulated environment. On the other hand, the nonexistence of formal basin-wide organizational bodies, such as in the Jordan, or the ill-functioning of such bodies, tend to present a major impediment to cooperation and become particularly problematic if such bodies fail to provide the water diplomacy fora riparian states would require in times of disagreement.

Within the organizational setup of RBOs, an effective secretariat has proven to be particularly critical. Secretariats (or other administrative bodies such as the Executive Committee of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea in the case of Central Asia) first and foremost, fulfill support and facilitating functions to their respective RBOs. This typically includes the organization and preparation of meetings of the RBO’s governing bodies, the documentation of decision-making processes and their outcomes, the coordination (and in some case implementation) of data and information management and exchange, and related studies and analyses, as well as the management of the RBO’s financial resources. Strong secretariats, led by impartial leaders and staffed by highly professional and competent staff, actively facilitate agreements on issues and potential disputes. These services are an important prerequisite for ensuring that cooperation is maintained over time, and that joint activities (starting with the mere fact that member states meet on a regular basis) are being implemented. In most cases studied in this book, the secretariats of existing RBOs do fulfill these functions—albeit at varying degrees of efficiency, which tends to affect overall cooperation effectiveness.

Together, the legal and institutional characteristics of an RBO determine to a great extent what role it can play in water diplomacy. Table 1.3 highlights some examples.

Table 1.3 Examples of RBOs’ legal and institutional characteristics contributing to water diplomacy



Contribution to water diplomacy

Legal framework and mandate

  • - Embeddedness into the legal framework of Europe (1992 Helsinki Convention, 1992 Espoo Convention, EU WFD, other water-related EU directives, etc.)
  • - Set of legal arrangements for Great Lakes (1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, 1955 Great Lakes Basin Compact, 1955 Convention on Great Lakes Fisheries, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Agreement, Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact)
  • - 1995 Mekong Agreement and Procedures
  • - Provision of predefined and binding comprehensive framework for dealing with potentially contested issues
  • - Predefined provisions on management of shared water resources prevent the emergence of disagreements or mitigate them at very early stages and in participatory manner, allowing for their long-term resolution
  • - A clear set of agreed principles, rules, and procedures in developing and managing the basin provides the basis for addressing disagreements and disputes through practice and adaptation

Institutional design and setup

  • - Ministerial-level decision-making platform in form of Ministerial Committee ofCICOS
  • - Strong role of Secretariat oftheMRC
  • - Engagement of NILE-Sec in technical and political track of cooperation
  • - Ensuring regular meetings between high-level policy makers that allow for addressing potentially contested issues early on and in a predefined manner
  • - Provision of administrative and technical support as well as facilitation to member states and their mechanisms for addressing disagreements
  • - Continuous linkage of transboundary water management to water diplomacy (to extent possible)

Source: Kittikhoun and Schmeier.

With regard to the technical mechanisms RBOs apply for managing shared water resources, case studies indicate that these are indeed very important in indirectly and directly contributing to preventing, mitigating, or resolving conflicts. The trust member states and other actors put into the quality of technical work and the trustworthiness of the results has proven to be critical. For instance, the coordinated gathering and analysis of data on the state of the basin or on specific issues do build a joint understanding of the basin, as well as the urgency of action, among riparian states. This is often the starting point, or the only space allowed, for cooperation, as the example of the Jordan and the engagement of scientific institutions shows.

Similarly, albeit in a more advanced cooperation context, the Joint Danube Survey and similar activities in the river provide a means for states to achieve consensus over how data is gathered and analyzed, and ultimately over the data itself. The case study on Central Asia highlights disagreements over the state of the basin and its resources and thus the challenges that need to be addressed. Conversely, in the case of the Mekong, years of technical work (data gathering, development scenario building, and scientific assessments of potential impacts of large-scale water infrastructure projects) as well as independent technical reviews of and recommendations for specific mainstream dams during their very political prior consultation processes, helped engender common understanding about reasonable and equitable use and the agreement on measures for avoiding, minimizing, and mitigating transboundary costs.

And, finally, the strategic mechanisms RBOs have at hand to engage in water diplomacy through guiding water resources and basin development towards mutually acceptable and beneficial outcomes have proven to be of great importance. The example of the Strategic Water Resources Analysis of the Nile Basin Initiative (NB1) shows how—in spite of an overall context of persistent conflict—joint assessments and scenario exercises can raise awareness of the challenges the basin is facing. This has established the urgency to address them, leading to further action in individual states and through some cooperative projects. Similarly, the Basin Development Planning process of the MRC constitutes an important means for assessing the riparian states’ national development plans and projects in order to appreciate the benefits and costs of those plans, and the impacts to other states, in order to find a more optimal and sustainable path (Table 1.4).

Table 1.4 Examples of RBOs’ technical and strategic mechanisms contributing to water diplomacy



Contribution to water diplomacy

Technical mechanisms

- Joint research in the Jordan River Basin

- Gradually builds trust in data and in partners in the basin that can provide a basis for cooperation; improves knowledge of parties

- State of the Basin Report for the Nile River Basin

- Development of a jointly agreed upon understanding of the state of the basin has allowed countries to come together in spite of disagreements

- Joint Danube Survey

- Establishment of trust in data and in cooperation through jointly agreed upon data gathering and analysis, and thus understanding of key water management issues that need to be addressed cooperatively

Strategic mechanisms

- Nile Strategic

Water Analysis

- Assessing the availability of water resources against cumulative demands allows riparians to develop a joint understanding of the urgency of the issue and the fact that unilateral action is not a viable option

- Danube River Basin Management Plan

- Developing a basin-wide plan that prioritizes measures to be taken by all riparian states ensures that river basin management is undertaken in a coordinated manner from the beginning on, avoiding/preventing later disputes

Source: Kittikhoun and Schmeier

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