Shared political will and joint actions central to effective basin governance

There are more than 120 basin organisations around the world, all varying in size, structure, and actions. But what makes an effective basin organisation? This was the central question in the latest Transboundary Freshwater Security Governance online event, ‘The role of institutionalised cooperation in shared basins: What’s the recipe for effective basin governance?’

Held on Monday, 10 October 2022, the 90-minute interactive session featured expert presentations, audience questions, and a range of breakout rooms. More than 80 people from around the world attended the event, which was co-organised by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and IHE Delft Institute for Water Education.

The first presentation was from Susanne Schmeier, Associate Professor in Water Law and Diplomacy at IHE Delft, who also acted as the session’s chair. Susanne praised the ability of institutionalised agreements between basin countries to foster commitments that can weather political and diplomatic storms. “Basin organisations and treaties allow members to meet regularly, exchange data, and implement monitoring activities – even in times of disagreement,” she explained. “These organisations are a key tool to ensure that disagreements that might arise between countries are dealt with in a cooperative manner. We know that shared basins where these agreements are in place tend to have less conflict, and that any conflict which does occur tends to be less intense.”

Attendees then heard from three representatives of well-known basin organisations. Lenka Thamae, Executive Secretary of the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM), gave an overview of how his organisation develops and implements joint organisation plans. To achieve lasting change in Southern Africa, Lenka stressed the importance of getting member states to agree to clearly defined objectives, including broad ‘central strategic objectives’, more specific ‘enabling strategic objectives’, and ‘cross-cutting strategic objectives’. These goals can then serve as a springboard for joint priority actions. Examples from the Orange-Senqu River Basin include low-cost groundwater desalinisations plants in Botswana and the Noordoewer/Vioolsdrift Dam for South Africa and Namibia.

 Birgit Vogel, Executive Secretary of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), then spoke about the links between basin organisations and member states. This is especially pertinent for the Danube River Basin, which is shared between 19 countries, making it the world’s most international river basin. Commenting on this diversity, Birgit emphasised that a sense of shared will, trust, and ownership is essential for the success of the ICPDR. “It’s important that members all speak the same language – technologically, economically, and ecologically,” she explained. “To encourage this, we identify joint challenges and activities, share data across the basin, and promote stakeholder involvement and public participation.”

 The third speaker was Santi Baran, Chief Strategy and Partnership Officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), who explored the challenges of sustainable financing for transboundary water cooperation. For the MRC, these challenges relate to the organisation’s ongoing transformation from donor funding to self-financing by its member states of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam. “We considered various ways to decide how the funding should be split between the member states,” recalled Santi. “These included proportional funding based on the size of the catchment area within each country, or the amount of irrigated land, or population size. But these proved unsatisfactory. In the end, it was decided that Thailand and Vietnam, as the wealthier members, should initially pay a higher share.” Santi attributes this simple solution to a “Mekong spirit” – a sense of shared political will and national ownership among member states.

 Summarising the event, Susanne reminded participants and attendees of the progress that has already been achieved by institutionalised basin cooperation. “There will never be a perfect basin organisation, nor a perfect process to establishing a basin organisation,” she concluded. “But, when it comes to building institutional cooperation, starting small is always better than not starting. A brief exchange is better than no engagement. It’s important to look at how far we’ve come: many basin organisations bring countries together that previously wouldn’t talk to each other about transboundary water cooperation. This shows how basin organisations make a real difference.”

 The event was closed by Yumiko Yasuda, GWP’s Senior Network and Transboundary Water Cooperation Specialist, who invited participants to continue their discussions at GWP’s Transboundary Water Knowledge Exchange Hub. She also encouraged those interested in the topics covered to enrol in the Transboundary Freshwater Security Governance course, a series of interactive online sessions now entering its third year. The next session in this course, ‘Using data in transboundary water management and negotiations’, is already scheduled for 2 November 2022 – register here to book your place.