Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 44, Fall/Winter 1998
Conflict Resolution and Transboundary Water Resources

Openness, sustainability, and public participation in transboundary river-basin institutions
Part III: Adapting the U.S.-Mexico paradigm

by Lenard Milich and Robert G. Varady

"The emergence and evolution of the post-NAFTA environmental institutions in the U.S.-Mexico border region is a large transnational experiment, one that recognizes that sustainable development links economic prosperity with quality-of-life issues. ... While different situational contexts clearly require different solutions...there is reason to believe that the model's roots - openness, transparency, capacity-building, and bottom-up design, all in the context of sustainable development - could take hold in other transboundary areas."

The U.S.-Mexico border region: An overview

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The 3,140-km border between the United States and Mexico has served at various times as an outpost of nationalism, a barrier, a filter, and a set of points of conflict. It has also been a line of contact and cooperation.

In both countries, national agendas have often been at variance with the local needs of distant border residents. One longtime observer of the United States and Mexico has depicted the entire period of relations between the two nations as "fragile."(45) In the border zone itself, however, harsh frontier life commonly has fostered acts of cooperation rather than antagonism.(46)

With shared physiographic features and ecosystems, longstanding kinship and cultural ties, historically interreliant economic systems, and rising urbanization, the U.S.-Mexico border typifies many international boundaries. But an important difference also marks this frontier: the United States is a wealthy nation, while Mexico is not. This discrepancy attracts many businesses to the border region.(47) Banks and department stores catering to Mexicans line the main streets of U.S. border settlements, while in Mexico, industrial plants called maquiladoras take advantage of available low-wage labor, accessibility to U.S. markets, inexpensive energy and water resources, and unevenly enforced environmental laws.(48)

US-Mexico borderlands thumbnail
Thumbnail link to map of U.S.-Mexico borderlands, ~10K file

Among all natural-resource and environmental problems between the United States and Mexico, water has been the most troublesome. Most of the U.S.-Mexico border passes through water-scarce regions, resulting in intense competition over the water resources of two major rivers, the Rio Grande (Rio Bravo in Mexico) and the Colorado.(49) In this regard, the U.S.-Mexico border offers an instructive archetype of cooperation: despite asymmetrical power relationships and economic as well as cultural disparities, since 1848 the two nations have resolved most of their differences peacefully and amicably.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) delivers a paradigm shift

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Before 1994, binational community problems were addressed in typical top-down fashion, from national capitals thousands of kilometers away. In late 1993, a radical change occurred: the United States, Mexico, and Canada signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).(50) To complement NAFTA, environmentalists obtained two important sets of environmental agreements.(51) For the first time anywhere, auxiliary instruments of a negotiated trade agreement linked environmental sustainability to economic development both throughout North America and in the U.S.-Mexico border zone - a linkage endorsed by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, but unprecedented at the time.

Joining environmental and economic agendas yielded a number of useful insights. Policymakers recognized that further development of the border economy requires sizable investment in environmental infrastructure (such as water-delivery systems and wastewater treatment plants) to assure residents a clean, safe, and healthy environment. As part of the NAFTA negotiations, the United States and Mexico established two binational organizations that function solely within the border region, a 200-km wide strip with 100 km on either side of the boundary. One of the two institutions, the North American Development Bank (NADBank), helps fund environmental infrastructure projects through public-private loan programs.

The second institution is the Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC), responsible for "certifying" proposed projects.(52) For certification, proposed projects must observe all applicable environmental laws and must satisfy explicit BECC criteria regarding community participation, public health and environment, technical feasibility, sustainable development, and continual economic self-sufficiency.(53)

BECC's structure explicitly rejects the prevailing characteristics of the four dominant paradigms outlined above. Admittedly, elements of these paradigms have surfaced during the Commission's operation, but the built-in openness to public participation has, to date, helped prevent and at times reverse autocratic and technocratic "solutions." Notably, recognizing that additional government regulation would be unlikely to benefit the environment, the BECC/NADBank model avoids regulatory provisions. We proceed to show how BECC further differs from other international accords' paradigms, and then briefly reflect on how BECC could become a model for transnational river-basin accords.

A. Rejecting scientific/technical dominance: Injecting nontechnical perspectives

Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) has authority over water allocation and sanitation.(54) By law headed by two certified engineers, one from each country, IBWC decisions are based on technical studies. The outcomes of this process are normally engineering works.

By contrast, BECC is governed by a binational ten-member Board of Directors. Among the ten are the two IBWC national commissioners, who inject technical viewpoints. However, this engineering perspective is complemented, and often counterbalanced, by the viewpoints of environmental agencies, NGOs, affected state governments, and academic institutions.(55) Indeed, the board's majority nontechnical perspectives are unlikely to favor traditionally designed large-scale engineering works because of their associated social and environmental costs. Rather, BECC favors working with affected states, local communities, and NGOs to develop effective solutions to border-region environmental problems.

B. Rejecting the top-down paradigm: Bottom-up design ensures community focus

To avoid the pitfall of centralization, BECC's Board of Directors is weighted in favor of nonfederal representatives. Further, BECC is spurring and then awaiting requests for assistance from localities; in keeping with its adopted policies, the commission gives preference to economically disadvantaged communities.

Once BECC receives an expression of interest, it may award technical assistance grants to help communities prepare proposals. Thus, impetus for proposed projects arises from, or at least is accepted at, the grassroots. Such acceptance is in fact an explicit requirement for certification. From the design phase on, projects are required to be guided by public advisory committees. Because eventual project-implementation loans from NADBank must be repaid, the expense to local governments may raise grassroots inquiries as to whether the potential benefits of a project will outweigh its probable costs.

C. Rejecting secrecy: Open design promotes transparency

BECC's emphasis on public participation is paired with what has proven to be a commitment to openness. The board meets quarterly; thus far, only geographical distance seems to be a barrier to attendance. Those who attend witness open discussions that have been remarkably free of hidden agendas, secrets, and manipulation. Decisions are never final until voted on publicly, after public input, questions, and discussion. On several occasions, projects thought to be all-but-approved were sent back for redesign following the public-comment period.

BECC's charter contains explicit provisions for public participation. BECC must ensure public access to documents for all proposed projects requesting certification and must arrange opportunities for public comment. Groups affected by proposed projects may also submit comments directly to the Board of Directors. In this regard, the Commission has been aided by BECCnet, an Internet-based discussion group.(56) As of early 1998, BECCnet subscribers in the two countries include government officials, academics and scholars, NGO representatives, concerned community groups, private-sector stakeholders, and ordinary citizens. Since 1995, BECCnet has influenced decisionmaking five times.

D. Rejecting the regulatory paradigm: Capacity-building design for flexibility

Border communities, responding to their pressing need for enhanced infrastructure, have begun to hold open meetings to establish priorities for project proposals. BECC is also furnishing technical and financial aid to economically disadvantaged communities, providing them the resources to prepare sound proposals. Largely as a result of this new source of support, many communities are beginning to articulate unmet needs. Generally, the most immediate need is for physical plants and the financial base to assure their long-term operation. To date, BECC-approved proposals specifically target capacity-building because whenever possible, BECC's guidelines favor investments in human capital, especially the training of environmental managers. The Commission's growing acceptance of the concepts underlying sustainable development has broadened its priorities to include the upgrading of implementing-agency skills and civic infrastructure.

The BECC paradigm as a template for transboundary environmental institutions

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In Parts I and II of this article, we have underscored how existing transboundary river basin management regimes are often imposed from national power centers onto peripheral border communities, with little or no weight given to local concerns. Frequently, environmental protection in these regimes is an afterthought to the accords' original purpose, that of assuring navigation. Some accords endure only on paper; although a secretariat may exist, implementation of cooperative projects or environmental protection remains elusive. In Part III of this article, we have sketched how a new model of cooperation across borders has evolved, one that adopts the Agenda 21 suggestion that transnational environmental commissions manage the environment holistically.(57)

The emergence and evolution of the post-NAFTA environmental institutions in the U.S.-Mexico border region is a large transnational experiment, one that recognizes that sustainable development links economic prosperity with quality-of-life issues. To achieve either without the other is neither practicable nor equitable. The BECC model has been exemplary in focusing on the needs and ambitions of border residents, in following a path toward sustainable development, in offering a viable and dynamic alternative to the usual secrecy at the core of diplomatically driven decisionmaking, in demoting the world's prevailing focus on engineering solutions, and in beginning to promote a vision of social equity. While different situational contexts clearly require different solutions, implying that export of the BECC-NADBank model faces significant difficulties, there is reason to believe that the model's roots - openness, transparency, capacity-building, and bottom-up design, all in the context of sustainable development - could take hold in other transboundary areas.


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The present paper is the product of study since 1989 of U.S.-Mexico border environmental policy by the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at The University of Arizona, made possible by generous grants from the Ford Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. We are indebted to Helen Ingram, Warmington Endowed Chair in the Social Ecology of Peace and International Cooperation, UC-Irvine, for her invaluable contribution.

Endnotes to Part III:

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45. Williams, E. 1992. A political perspective: From fragility to creativity. In Free Trade: Arizona at the Crossroads, eds. V.K. Pavlakovich and M.A. Worden, 45. Phoenix, Ariz.: Arizona Town Hall. (back to text)

46. Examples of such cooperation are given in Ingram, H., L. Milich, and R.G. Varady. 1994. Managing transboundary resources: Lessons from Ambos Nogales. Environment 36(4): 6-9, 28-38. See also Ingram, H. N.K. Laney, and D.M. Gillilan. 1995. Divided Waters: Bridging the U.S.-Mexico Border. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press. (back to text)

47. A general description of asymmetries across the U.S.-Mexico border is in Ganster, P. 1997. On the road to interdependence? The U.S.-Mexico border region. In Borders and border regions in Europe and North America, eds. P. Ganster, A. Sweedler, J. Scott, and W. Dieter-Eberwein, 237-266. San Diego, Calif.: San Diego University Press. (back to text)

48. Tolan, S. 1990. The border boom: Hope and heartbreak. The New York Times Magazine, 1 July 1990: 17-21, 31, and 40. See also Mumme, S.P. 1992. New directions in United States-Mexico transboundary environmental management: A critique of current proposals. Natural Resources Journal 32(3): 539-562. (back to text)

49. Sánchez, R. Water conflicts between Mexico and the United States: Towards a regional water market? In The scarcity of water: International, European, and national legal aspects, eds. E.J. de Haan and E. Brans, 260-276. London: Kluwer International. (back to text)

50. NAFTA's full text is available online at: Trade Compass. North American Free Trade Agreement. Internet (May 1998): (back to text)

51. The first of these was the trinational (Canada, U.S., Mexico) Environmental Side Agreements (ESA). The ESA can be read online at: Secretariat of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. Internet (May, 1998): Signed in October 1993, the second agreement is binational, and addresses only the U.S.-Mexico border region. It can be read at the BECC web site: Agreement between the government of the United States of America and the government of the United Mexican States concerning the establishment of a Border Environment Cooperation Commission and a North American Development Bank. Internet (May 1998): The relationship of NAFTA to sustainable development is well-researched by Canada's International Institute for Sustainable Development: The North American Free Trade Agreement. Internet (May, 1998): The University of California at Los Angeles' North American Integration and Development Center tracks NAFTA-related issues: Internet (May, 1998): NADBank also has a web site: Internet (May 1998): (back to text)

52. The roles of NADBank, BECC, and CEC are further discussed in Ingram, H., R.G. Varady, and L. Milich. 1995. Enhancing transboundary environmental policy: Some principles for the new Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC). Initiative 7(1): 8-9 and 12-18. BECC guidelines for project submission and criteria for project certification are available online: Environmental Protection Agency. Border Environment Cooperation Commission guidelines. Internet (May 1998): (back to text)

53. The criteria are comprehensively listed in Varady, R. G., D. Colnic, R. Merideth, and T. Sprouse. 1996. The U.S.-Mexican Border Environment Cooperation Commission: Collected perspectives on the first two years. Journal of Borderland Studies 11(2): 89-119. (back to text)

54. Ingram, Laney and Gillilan 1995 (endnote 46) contains a history of the IBWC, and describes how until recently the Commission incorporated elements of all the dominant paradigms. An overview of border water resources, and a history of U.S.-Mexico transboundary water management, is in Gunning, M.J. 1996. The projected impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on transboundary water management between Mexico and the U.S.A. In Transboundary Water Resources Management: Institutional and Engineering Approaches, eds. J. Ganoulis, L. Duckstein, P. Literathy, and I. Bogardi, 71-84. Brussels: NATO ASI series, partnership sub-series 2 environment, volume 7, part 1, chapter II, section II.3. The IBWC website (Internet, May 1998) is at (back to text)

55. As of April, 1998, the other eight members include the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Mexico's counterpart, the Secretary of Environment, Natural Resources, and Fisheries; others are affiliated with New Mexico's Southwest Research and Information Center, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Board, the City of Tijuana, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, and an environmental consulting organization. (back to text)

56. This listserver was developed and is maintained by the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. Standard subscription practices operate. (back to text)

57. United Nations Development Programme. Protection of the quality and supply of freshwater resources: Application of integrated approaches to the development, management and use of water resources. Internet (May 1998): gopher:// (back to text)

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Author Information

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Lenard Milich is a visiting fellow at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, The University of Arizona, and an assistant research scientist at the Office of Arid Lands Studies, The University of Arizona. He is also an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle University, Prescott, Arizona. His web site can be accessed at, and he can be reached for comment by email at

Associate research professor Varady is deputy director of the Udall Center. He can be reached for comment by email at: or by mail at:

The Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy
The University of Arizona 803/811 E. First St.
Tucson, AZ 85719
Web site:

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