Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: February 2019



In the 1950s Lilienthal initiated a conversation for the Indus River and Johnston went to the Jordan River. They wanted to address transboundary water management (TWM) issues in South Asia and in the Middle East respectively. In 1960, the Indus Treaty was signed, but it took several decades to sign the 1994 Israel- Jordan Treaty. What are the similarities and differences for these two TWM cases? What can we learn from the historical evolution as well as the presence (and absence) of conditions to effectively address similar TWM problems?

The question of how to govern and manage transboundary water for human consumption, irrigation, hydropower, urban and industrial development, sociocultural needs and sustainability of ecosystems continues to be an issue of concern, conflict and cooperation. Academic literature and policy practice suggest interactions of many natural, societal and political elements (hereafter, “elements” will be used to mean variables, processes, actors and institutions within a TWM system) shape the nature and evolution of TWM dynamics. Challenges and opportunities associated with understanding, explaining and managing the TWM issues are many. Context, complexity and contingency are terms that are now in frequent use in addressing TWM issues; yet, these terms are often vaguely defined and used in a colloquial sense. There are multiple schools of thought and scholarship; however, there appears to be a void of actionable ideas on what to do and how.

With the rise to prominence of TWM challenges on the global stage, concerns over water security and regional stability have become inextricably associated with many national and international agendas and initiatives supported by a wealth of academic literature and policy practice. Despite its increasing sophistication, most of this literature remains wedded to implicit assumptions about values (e.g., that cooperation is desirable and is more cost effective than conflicts; yet, no formal agreements exist to most shared transboundary basins) and that engaging an array of methods, tools, governance structures and institutions will yield a universal cure. These assumptions are rarely challenged and the search for a general theory (e.g., a general theory of TWM cooperation) continues. When faced with failure, it has become commonplace to assert that “context matters,” but less has been done to show why, when and how it matters.