Governing Water as a Common Good in the Mekong River Basin: issues of scale

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Philip Hirsch


Transboundary water governance has received special attention in the wake of the World Bank vice-president Ismail Serageldin’s famous prediction in 1995 that, “if the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water”. The water wars scenario ensures that in the world’s more than 260 river basins that flow across national boundaries, primary attention is given to managing water as an international commons. A framework for such transboundary management has been in place more or less continuously in the Mekong for half a century, and it would appear that water has indeed been a force for cooperation even when brutal conflict has torn at the region.

Despite the appearance of successful basin-scale management, inter-governmental management of water as an international commons in a transboundary river basin context can also hide some troubling ways in which water as a commons is eroded in the process of development. This paper considers common property dimensions of water and the livelihood systems that they support at multiple scales within the Mekong. It goes on to look at ways in which these are impacted upon by bureaucratisation, infrastructure and commodification processes. Ironically, basin organisations can both enhance and undermine governance for the common good, depending on how they deal with commonality of interest in freshwater at various scales. The paper draws on brief case studies of current trends in water governance including river basin organisations in the Mekong (the Mekong River Commission and River Basin Committees at national levels), of infrastructure (Thailand’s proposed Water Grid and Laos’ Nam Theun 2 dam) and of commodified notions of water (as a development resource and as a scarce commodity to be managed through market mechanisms).

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