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 II: Regulatory, closed and top-down paradigms of river basin management

by Lenard Milich and Robert G. Varady

"The four paradigms outlined [in Parts I and II of this article] have dominated for nearly 150 years. Today, however, national hegemony may be quietly giving way to multiple interests. Decisions made in distant capitals may seem capricious, arbitrary, and irrelevant to inhabitants of border regions. Yet local control is not the answer either, since it may result in dominance by parochial interests with no regard for sustainability concerns."

The regulatory or standard-driven paradigm

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The trend in international environmental-quality accords has been to move toward numerical standards and strict regulation of pollution. Since the early 1970s, environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have stressed international harmonization and the stiffening of environmental standards. Proponents of this approach seem impervious to lessons learned in the United States, where uniform national standards sometimes poorly fit local circumstances. It is undesirable, for example, to permit the air in national parks to be degraded to a national standard acceptable in urban locations; nor should water suppliers need to meet all drinking water standards even when certain contaminants do not occur within hundreds of kilometers of their sources.(29)

Like technical approaches, regulatory approaches are prone to misaddressing problems. Perhaps no better example exists than the Colorado River accords among the seven U.S. riparian states, and between the United States and Mexico.(30) Mexico, concerned that the U.S. was sucking the Colorado River dry, lobbied for a set allocation of river water. The ensuing Treaty of 1944 requires the United States to annually provide 1.5 million acre-feet (1.853 km3) of Colorado River water to Mexico, a small fraction of what once flowed south.(31) The Treaty did not mention water quality, however, and post-irrigation return flow to the river is heavily saline. The net effects for Mexico include decimation of the river's delta wetlands, severe impairment of the upper Gulf of California's ecology, reduced agricultural yields, and salinization of irrigated land. As indicated in Part I of this article, the two countries have attempted a technical/scientific solution to this problem.

The closed paradigm

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Negotiation of international agreements traditionally has been restricted to high-level diplomats. Concerning global or transnational environmental issues, NGOs have insisted on a meaningful role in framing the debate and generating alternatives since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. This attempt at democratization generally has been resisted by professional diplomats, technocrats, and military officers. These officials, pursuing their own, often parochial, national interests, insist that the necessity for delicacy, secrecy, and professional expertise makes the imposition of actors they consider "amateurs" both inappropriate and unwise.

Zambezi basin map thumbnail
Thumbnail link to map of Zambezi basin, ~10K file

The Plan of Action of the Zambezi river (ZACPLAN) is a case in point. Born in May 1995 as an offspring of the Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems (32) of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), it involves 11 countries, including the non-Basin states of Lesotho, South Africa, and Swaziland. ZACPLAN's functions are astonishingly broad; its proposed mandate includes coordinating the integrated development of the Zambezi Basin's resources, gathering and disseminating data, and preventing and controlling drought, desertification, soil erosion and sedimentation.

ZACPLAN has now engendered the Zambezi River Basin Commission (ZRBC), comprising the respective heads of state (meeting biannually to set policy), a council of ministers (meeting annually to monitor the executive directorate and coordinating unit), an executive directorate responsible for day-to-day operations, and a coordinating unit. The operating budget for the Convention and the ZRBC, formerly specified to be equally shared among the signatory states, now "are to be a specific part of the [SADC shared watercourses] protocol."(33)

As of this writing, SADC's members are considering ratification of this protocol. The fledgling ZRBC exists, but most elements of ZACPLAN are not yet in place, and the ZRBC lacks funding and full institutional articulation with SADC.(34)

Victoria Falls thumbnail
Thumbnail link to Victoria Falls image, ~25K file

The ZRBC is an example of a quintessentially closed design, excluding public participation in any form. The design of this commission underscores the fact that such closed and potentially unresponsive designs are being created even in the 1990s.

The top-down paradigm

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According to international law and diplomacy, ratified international agreements supersede domestic laws and arrangements. These international conventions consider nations to be unitary actors-whether or not the parties involved have strong federal systems. Consequently, using the United States as an example, international agreements often reflect the viewpoint of just a few federal agencies. The interests of state and local governments, as well as of nongovernmental actors, tend to be downplayed or ignored. Implementation is therefore seriously flawed: local agents lack the capacity and motivation to be effective, and local informal arrangements that might have become the basis of formal cooperation are largely ignored.

Plata basin thumbnail
Thumbnail link to Plata River basin map, ~10K file

Top-down decisions made in national capitals rarely account for the needs, desires, and aspirations of the borderlands' inhabitants.(35) One example is the 1969 Plata Basin Treaty. Five South American nations (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay) share the Rio del Plata basin and its international and transnational rivers.(36) The Treaty established a Coordinating Committee and provided the first framework for integrated development among the basin nations. However, implementation is hampered by centuries of mutual distrust.(37)

The Treaty is an agreement to cooperate in several areas, not a point-by-point directive. This indicates the five nations' unwillingness to undertake more substantive obligations. The Treaty's system is a classic top-down approach: an annual meeting of foreign-affairs ministers (FAM) sets policies and guides action, and a permanent intergovernmental coordinating committee (ICC) maintains a secretariat that coordinates, promotes, and controls multinational efforts. FAM and ICC decisions must be unanimous. The Treaty also set up a financial institution (FONPLATA) to finance programs. Nevertheless, the Treaty remains institutionally weak, with only a poor capacity to regulate or enforce its decisions. This weakness may be deliberate, given the signatories' history of mistrust. In such cases, top-down designs tend to replicate and even fortify existing suspicions and misgivings. Resultant institutions become extensions of diplomatic mechanisms that failed to halt previous conflicts in other arenas. The top-down emphasis provides no obvious role for either public or local government participation.

Niger River basin map
Thumbnail link to Niger River basin map, ~12K file

A second example is the Niger Basin Authority. The 1964 Niger River Commission was reorganized in 1980 as the nine-member Niger Basin Authority; its mandate now extends to ensuring the integrated development of the basin, including both surface and groundwater.(38) However, the Authority has been unable to formulate a coherent master plan.(39) In a 1995 interview with the Executive Secretary of the Authority,(40) we learned that little had been achieved beyond the stockpiling of reports and action plans. Furthermore, signatories were disagreeing over the requirement of equal financial contributions - Chad, with just 100,000 Basin inhabitants, believes it should pay less than Nigeria, with more than 60 million Basin inhabitants. As a result, when economic woes hit the region in 1994, members ceased to fund the Authority.

Life along the Niger thumbnail
Thumbnail link to images of life along the Niger, ~50K file

Only very recently has the United Nations Environment Programme laid firm plans among member states to strengthen the Authority's institutional capacity. These plans may ultimately redress the Authority's longstanding deficits in financial and infrastructural resources. It is unclear whether such plans will be able to either accommodate imbalances in size and power among member states, or advance regional cooperation when occasional acute conflict breaks out.(41)


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To differing degrees, most existing international river-basin accords exhibit the inherent disadvantages of the above four paradigms. Five common themes emerge from our analysis:

  1. Power is centrally retained. Accords are nation-to-nation even when river systems are international and facing riverbanks share more commerce, common culture, and regional ties with each other than with their respective heartlands. Policy decisions rarely consider the needs, desires, and aspirations of the borderlands' inhabitants.
  2. The power structure of these organizations often reflects political and economic imbalances among members. As a result, "agreements to agree" can become stymied by a refusal to play the game. The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC), operating between the United States and Mexico, probably best exemplifies a power imbalance between an accord's participating countries. Until very recently, the IBWC was as much a source of discord between the two countries as it was a tool for managing a common resource.(42)
  3. Implementation of accords is generally left to the discretion of signatory parties rather than being unequivocally programmed into an agreement. IBWC Minute 242 between the United States and Mexico, reducing salinity in Colorado River water delivered to Mexico, offers a rare example of unequivocal programming [see Part I, "The Technical/Scientific Paradigm" and endnote 7].
  4. At both national and subnational levels, mechanisms rarely exist for public participation. Only recently have large public groups attempted intervention in transboundary natural-resources decisionmaking processes.(43) Few transnational environmental accords accommodate, let alone encourage, formal participation by NGOs, community-based organizations, or other spokespersons for public interests. Exclusion of local actors may result in internal political friction and enforcement difficulties.
  5. Several of the accords are driven solely by "development" or navigation needs. The resulting commissions are often staffed by engineers and technocrats, both prone to underestimating the social costs of their schemes. (44) One of the best-known examples is the Aswan High Dam, which both eliminated Nile floods and nearly obliterated the flood-borne transport of the silt that has fertilized Egypt for millennia. Farmlands downriver have become far less fertile, systematically impoverishing farming families; and the dam's reservoir, Lake Nasser, has become a breeding ground for disease vectors.

The four paradigms outlined above have dominated for nearly 150 years. Today, however, national hegemony may be quietly giving way to multiple interests. Decisions made in distant capitals may seem capricious, arbitrary, and irrelevant to inhabitants of border regions. Yet local control is not the answer either, since it may result in dominance by parochial interests with no regard for sustainability concerns.

A new model is needed, one that judiciously marries local needs with general concepts of multinational environmental security. The first significant attempt at such a model began in 1994 along the United States-Mexico border. In Part III of this paper, we discuss how the design of the [U.S.-Mexico] Border Environment Cooperation Commission (BECC) differs from the existing paradigms. BECC may prove to be a superior model for international cooperation, one that is locally-focused and inclusive.

Endnotes for Part II:

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29. Sprouse, T., D. Corey, and R.G. Varady. 1996. Aquifer contamination and safe drinking water: The recent Santa Cruz County experience. Hydrology and Water Resources in Arizona and the Southwest 26: 87-98. (back to text)

30. Fradkin, P.L. 1996. A river no more: The Colorado River and the west (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. (back to text)

31. Utton, A.E. 1991. Mexican international waters. In Waters and water rights, ed. R.E. Beck, volume 5, part IX, chapter 51. Charlottesville, Va.: The Michie Company. (back to text)

32. SADC. 1998. Shared watercourse systems protocol. Internet (May, 1998): (back to text)

33. Tawfik, M.M. 1996. Integrated management of transboundary fresh water resources: Problems and prospects. ECA/MRAG/96/19/TP. Addis Ababa: United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. See also Maluwa, T. 1992. Toward an internationalization of the Zambezi River regime: The role of international law in the common management of an international watercourse. The Comparative and International Law Journal 25(1): 20-43. (back to text)

34. Walter Rast, Director, Water, the United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi; Halifa Drammeh, assistant to Walter Rast; personal communication with authors, 14 April 1998. (back to text)

35. Ingram, H., L. Milich, and R.G. Varady. 1994. Managing transboundary resources: Lessons from Ambos Nogales. Environment 36(4): 6-9, 28-38. (back to text)

36. Río Paraná and Río Paraguay both form boundaries between Paraguay-Brazil and Paraguay-Argentina, while the Paraguay also defines part of the Brazil-Bolivia border; Río Pilcomayo forms the border between Paraguay-Argentina, and Rio Uruguay defines the frontiers between Argentina-Brazil and Argentina-Uruguay. The Paraná flows from Brazil to Argentina, as does the Paraguay via the nation of Paraguay, while the source of the Pilcomayo is in the Bolivian Andes.(back to text)

37. Trevin, J.O. and J.C. Day. 1990. Risk perception in international river basin management: The Plata basin example. Natural Resources Journal 30(1): 87-105. (back to text)

38. Tawfik, endnote 33. Herein, the discussion of the Niger Basin Authority corroborates our assertion of its economic disorganization. (back to text)

39. Gould, M.S. and F.A. Zobrist. 1989. An overview of water resources planning in West Africa. World Development 17(11): 1717-1722. (back to text)

40. Personal communication with authors, 15 September 1995. (back to text)

41. Examples include the current sporadic exchanges of gunfire between Nigeria and Cameroon, the 1974 border war between Mali and Burkina Faso, or Nigeria's long-simmering ethnic rivalries, a situation that precipitated the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70. See The Nando Times. 1998. Cameroon says Nigeria stalling on U.N. border case. Internet (May 1998): See also Adeniji, O. 1998. Mechanisms for conflict management in West Africa: Politics of harmonization. Journal of Humanitarian Assistance. Internet (May 1998): See also Baker, P.H. and J.A. Ausink. 1996. State collapse and ethnic violence: Toward a predictive model. Parameters (U.S. Army War College Quarterly) 26(1): 19-31. (back to text)

42. Mumme, S.P. 1986. Engineering diplomacy: The evolving role of the International Boundary and Water Commission in U.S.-Mexico water management. Journal of Borderland Studies 1(1): 73-108. See also Ingram, H. and D.R. White. 1993. International Boundary and Water Commission: An institutional mismatch for resolving transboundary water problems. Natural Resources Journal 33(1): 153-175. (back to text)

43. One such example is the large demonstration held in early 1998 in Budapest against the completion of Hungary's part in new Hungarian-Slovak projects on the Danube river, planned as part of settling the two countries' long-lasting dispute over the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros hydroelectric project. See The Danube Circle. 1998. Demonstrators oppose Danube dam project. Internet (May 1998): (back to text)

44. In 1975, 62 dams failed during torrential rains in China. Carefully concealed by Chinese authorities, the catastrophe is now believed to have taken a minimum of 86,000 lives, and affected 10 to 12 million people in the ensuing famines and epidemics. The largest dam was breached largely because silt had blocked sluice gates designed to be opened during flood events. See Tuxill, J. 1996. Past dam disaster casts a shadow over Three Gorges. WorldWatch 9(4): 6. (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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