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  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: February 2019

Chapter One - Complexity and Contingency: Understanding Transboundary Water Issues

from Part I - The Conceptual Argument of the Book and a Case Illustration


Transboundary Water Management: A Brief Overview

There are approximately three hundred surface water basins and six hundred aquifers that cross international boundaries. Many more watersheds cross subnational jurisdictions. Competing and conflicting needs and demands for water in these basins as well as changing demography, socioeconomic conditions and climate are drawing increased attention to transboundary water management (TWM) issues from several disciplines and communities (e.g., Biswas and Hashimoto 1996; Elhance 1999; Turton and Henwood 2002; Pahl- Wostl 2004; Wolf 2006; Tal and Rabbo 2010; Earle et al. 2010; Subramanian et al. 2012; Mirumachi 2015; Petersen- Perlman et al. 2017).

TWM problems are shaped by many natural, societal and political interactions of elements (hereafter, “elements” will be used to mean variables, processes, actors and institutions within a TWM system). We begin by briefly describing four dominant approaches in TWM based on their frequent and growing usage in the literature. We hasten to add that these labels are more stylistic than analytical in use and purpose. Admittedly, such a categorization or labeling generally does injustice to actual positions. Yet, we hope, such a labeling may help to focus attention on current thinking—instead of citing, supporting or refuting any particular position—found in the writings of scholars and practitioners.

Hydro- management Approach: This approach is based on the notion of applying science to solve water problems using primarily expert knowledge about natural variables and processes. Social and political processes are usually left out or included as exogenous variables. Earlier conceptualizations of the hydraulic mission and integrated water resources management fall into this group. Proponents of this approach take the position that science- based management is a good idea, although they agree that it suffers from methodological imprecision and implementation difficulties when natural and societal processes are coupled. This approach faces growing challenges created by the awareness of irreducibility of uncertainty in scientific findings for policy actions.

Hydro- market Approach: This approach brings market forces and processes as an integral element of the water management process. It does so through the market mechanisms of pricing of scarce resources, internalizing externalities and trading of resources across sectors. The hydro- market approach is facilitated by innovations in technology and information processing and their use in promoting efficiency and conservation.