RBOs and cooperation under the shadow of anarchy: unravelling the fear of riparian states

Despite pioneering efforts by neoliberal institutionalists to offer a more elaborate and integrated theoretical concept of river basin organizations (RBOs),5 a deeper understanding of the impact of geopolitical history on water diplomacy remains necessary. In particular, it is necessary to more fully account for the geopolitical shadow of the past and existing political forces in a specific basin when analyzing why states (and RBOs) get stuck in disputes over transboundary waters. While RBOs certainly have the potential to manage water conflicts and prevent them from becoming a high-level political concern among riparian states, the question that remains is, can they progress water diplomacy from conflict management to conflict resolution, or a transformation in the highly anarchic geopolitical setting?6

In analyzing anarchy within the HRB context, this chapter focuses on three main obstacles that negatively influence the ability of the HRC to foster transboundary water cooperation. Firstly, anarchy feeds competition and conflict among states, and the dominant nature of political processes is striving for power and self-interest. Such conditions of anarchy compel states to fight for their survival and security to protect themselves.7 Accordingly, cooperation becomes difficult or, as this chapter maintains, fails to result in conflict transformation to ensure equity and sustainability—the principle foundations of transboundary water cooperation.8 Thus, striving for a balance of power dominates in anarchic settings and it may result either in no or limited cooperation, or the abuse of cooperation in order to maintain the status quo.

Secondly, while states may “seek to maximize their individual absolute gains” in a mixed interest situation, in anarchic settings they fear being cheated out of the outcome of cooperation. Institutions can assist states in maximizing both the collective benefits that derive from transboundary water cooperation and the resultant gains to individual states. However, despite there being legal and institutional mechanisms available to address cheating, states within an anarchic setting are reluctant to make such commitments due to a fear of relative gains by the other riparian. Thus, fear of relative gains is the main barrier tocooperation that emanates from anarchy. The major concern in an anarchic context is that cooperation “might produce a more dangerous potential foe in the future” because of a fear that “today’s friend may be tomorrow’s enemy.”9

Finally, another obstacle to water cooperation in an anarchic setting is uncertainty: “[s]tates are uncertain about one another’s future intentions,'' thus, they must give serious consideration to each other’s future capabilities. However, the inability of states within an anarchic setting to predict or control the interests and behavior of partners foments political uncertainty and consequently makes states wary when seeking to cooperate effectively. Ultimately, while the worst possible outcome of failed cooperation might be losing the opportunity to make progress, in an anarchic setting the achievement of cooperation might result in a much greater perceived risk of loss of power, independence, or even greater insecurity. Under these circumstances, states are unwilling to commit to a durable cooperative arrangement, preferring instead “to be more readily able to exit from the arrangement if gaps in gains...come to favour the other.”10

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