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  • Regional Water Institutions and Participation in Water Governance:The Colorado River Delta as an Exception to the Rule?
  • Andrea K. Gerlak (bio)


Beginning in the 1990s, heightened attention has been paid to the promotion of cooperative efforts at the river basin level to promote joint management and protection of international rivers (Conca et al. 2006; Gerlak and Grant 2009). River basin organizations (RBOs) are seen as key to basin cooperation, and have been established in virtually every region of the world (Schmeier et al. 2015). RBOs are promoted by a host of international organizations, including the Global Environment Facility and the World Water Council (Cosgrove and Rijsberman 2000; Uitto and Duda 2002; Gerlak 2004). International law promotes the formation of RBOs. The United Nations 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses encourages states to establish joint mechanisms or commissions to facilitate transboundary cooperation. So too do the Berlin Rules promote basinwide joint agencies or commissions to undertake the integrated management of international waters.

The idea of basin-level organizations is an old one. River basin management received considerable zeal with industrialization and development of technology for multipurpose river development in the first part of the 20th century (White 1969; Molle 2006). Unified basin management was often proposed under the command of a basin authority, albeit with limited application and success (White 1957; Ingram 1973). This expert-driven model spread throughout the world (Mukhtarov 2008; Delli Priscoli 2007), and by the 1950s, RBO discourse came to [End Page 184] be framed in the ideals of democracy, modernity, economic development, and part of the broader fight against communism (United Nations 1970; Ekbladh 2002; Turton et al. 2004). As non-navigational uses expanded in the second half of 20th century, regional organizations acquired new responsibilities related to dam construction, water allocation, and pollution (Wescoat 1996) and new mechanisms for data- and informationsharing provisions, conflict resolution, and participation beyond state actors (Giordano et al. 2014).

This revival of river basin management reflects 21st-century notions of what "good governance" means for water. Transnational policy entrepreneurs, particularly global knowledge networks, produce and maintain a global discourse of RBOs as mechanisms for good governance through the development of knowledge, development-assistance projects, global water meetings, and publications (Mukhtarov and Gerlak 2013a). International environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), like the World Wildlife Fund, Green Cross International, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, also advance RBOs as a vehicle for conservation and integration (Green Cross International 2000: 14; McNally and Tognetti 2002; World Wildlife Fund 2002; Aguilar and Iza 2011).

Organizations at the river basin level are thought to promote integrated water resource management (IWRM), an approach to water management that aims at holistic and multi-level governance of water and related resources (Hooper 2010). IWRM attempts to integrate the various components of the hydrological system as that relates to management. Among other things, what distinguishes IWRM from previous efforts of water management is an emphasis on greater participation of stakeholders in decision-making processes (Mukhtarov 2008).

But IWRM has come under considerable criticism in the past decade. Some opponents claim that such integration is doomed to fail because of the inherently political processes at play in water governance (Biswas et al. 2005; Rahaman and Varis 2005; Petit and Baron 2009). Some argue that IWRM does not integrate enough, with far too much focus on the water sector to the exclusion of other sectors (Ünver 2008). Conca (2006: 157-158) points out that the IWRM participation in water management by local water users is often "rhetorical" and tends to privilege expert, technocratic knowledge over other forms of knowledge. In their edited volume, Huitema and Meijerink (2009) provide several international case studies of IWRM approaches that have [End Page 185] fallen short or failed altogether due to lack of implementation and effective citizen engagement. Mukhtarov and Gerlak (2013b) argue that the limited framing of IWRM does injustice to the complexities of water management; it ignores politics and ethics, as well as the on-the-ground context. Ingram (2013) argues that IWRM degenerated into a buzzword used by actors with different understandings of its meaning, allowing for consultants and experts to...


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