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Transboundary Water Cooperation and the Regional Public Good: The Case of the Mekong River

Congress: 2008
Author(s): Oliver Hensengerth
Address: University of Duisburg-Essen Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) Geibelstrasse 41 47057 Duisburg Germany Email: Tel.: +49-203-379-4424 Fax: +49-203-379-4425

Keyword(s): transboundary river cooperation and conflict, regional governance, regional public good
AbstractAn increasing number of water-based cooperation projects have emerged in mainland Southeast Asia since the conclusion of the Cambodia conflict in 1991, which ended the Cold War in East Asia. Three of these projects have been well publicised and have attracted a lot of international attention as to the quick development of the economies in the Mekong region: the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) of 1992, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) of 1995 and the Quadripartite Economic Cooperation (QEC) or Golden Quadrangle of 2001. These three programmes share a number of characteristics, but they also divert in crucial points. The most obvious common feature is that all three projects involve several countries and are based on the Mekong River. They are therefore transboundary projects based on a transboundary river. The most striking difference is that the MRC is based on an extra-regional initiative, which brought the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) to mainland Southeast Asia and with it ideas of economic development that takes into consideration environmental impacts. However, the IWRM agenda of the MRC is far from being implemented. It could thus be argued that the MRC is a failed attempt of Mekong cooperation due to the fact that its founding initiative did not come from the region and incorporates development concepts that stem from European governance ideals. However, looking at the QEC and GMS, both initiatives came from the region and do not include ideas of environmental protection, but are designed to achieve unrestrained economic development. Interestingly, however, while the GMS thrives, the QEC failed owing to escalating conflicts between member countries on the central government and civil society levels and Thailand’s withdrawal from the project in 2003. This presentation looks at the commonalities and differences of all three of the projects and analyses the reasons for failure or success. The following parameters will be analysed: • the institutional structure from a multi-level governance perspective; • the rationale and agenda on which the project is based; • the internal or external origin of the initiative for establishment. Looking at these parameters shall bring answers to the following questions: why are some projects successful, others not? What are the factors that impede or facilitate cooperation? What lessons can be learned for effective sustainable river cooperation in mainland Southeast Asia, in which compromises can be negotiated to fulfil the interests of actors on multiple levels: non-state (farmers, river-side communities); local (provincial governments); central (central government). The presentation follows the argument that three factors need to be in place for water cooperation to be effective in mainland Southeast Asia, that is, to produce a regional public good: • home-grown initiatives, which produce agendas that stem directly from regional concerns and governance experience and are therefore grounded in the political culture of the area; • a civil society that represents the interests of communities affected by water construction projects and is able to negotiate compromises with government agencies within multi- level governance structures for the project to move on instead of failing (QEC) or lingering (MRC); • trust between national governments to negotiate compromises on the national level for the project to move on instead of failing (QEC) or lingering (MRC).
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