Transboundary governance


Rivers are interconnected systems, and their interconnectivity is also the basis of the ecological functioning of river systems. Many of the Mekong Region’s large rivers transcend international boundaries, so that interventions in one part of the river system may have impacts on the livelihoods and well-being of those in other parts of the system. The need to govern a river for all those who share it goes beyond a simple question of one country’s interests versus another. The transboundary governance institutions that have been established in the Mekong Region have been the subject of a great deal of study and debate, and they have a complicated relationship with the communities, civil society and other non-state entities in the countries that they cover.

Key governance issues:

  • Transboundary institutions for governing river systems
  • Determining what is a transboundary impact
  • Balancing countries independence of and basin-wide interests (territorial sovereignty and territorial integrity)
  • Transboundary environmental impact assessment

Current critique and debate:

The Mekong River Commission is the key transboundary governance institution in the region, and it is also the institution that has come under the greatest criticism for being ineffective, representing only state interests, and so on. Failure of individual project impact assessments to take into account transboundary impacts has been one of the main areas of critique of, and debate over, mainstream and large tributary dam projects. The difficulty of assessing transboundary implications of a multitude of small projects is another fraught area in transboundary governance of river systems. Furthermore, the transboundary geopolitical milieu in which rivers are governed is hardly a level playing field, so that power plays can lead to uneven outcomes.

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