• river basin management;
  • literature review;
  • economic issues;
  • policy aspects;
  • basin institutions


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Context
  4. 2. Existing Literature: Focus and Coverage
  5. 3. Special Section Papers: An Overview
  6. 4. Closing Remarks
  7. References

[1] The literature on river basin management is growing with an expanding coverage of issues and basins and an increasing refinement of approaches and methods. Still, many old questions remain unresolved, while new concerns are emerging, especially on the economic, managerial, and policy dimensions of river basin management. This special section brings together a set of papers that addresses some of these issues in the context of different basins around the world by adopting varying perspectives and approaches. This introductory paper prepares the stage and context for the special section with a brief review of existing literature and a quick overview of the papers included in the special section. Since the review indicates the major focus and coverage as well as the weak spots and gaps in present research, it provides context both to gauge the significance of the selected papers and to indicate the key areas requiring attention in future research on the subject of river basin management.

1. Context

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Context
  4. 2. Existing Literature: Focus and Coverage
  5. 3. Special Section Papers: An Overview
  6. 4. Closing Remarks
  7. References

[2] The pressures on river basins are constantly increasing with the expanding scale of economic activities and intensive utilization of water resources. As a result, the impacts of the interactions among society, water, landscape, and environment, which were once minimal and subtle, have now become more serious and acute. These impacts range from the ecological and hydrological consequences of catchment degradations to the production and health consequences of water quality deteriorations. Their combined effects are very serious as they tend to weaken the historically observed positive relationships between water resources and economic development [Orloci et al., 1985; Saleth, 2001] and engender many negative consequences on the ecological and political fronts [Gleick, 1998; Postal, 1999]. Responding to these disturbing trends, the research and policy community is constantly coming up with new approaches and initiatives. As a result, the analytical barriers inherent in the land-water dichotomy are disappearing with the articulation of the economic and ecological linkages between the land-based and water-based systems [Scudder, 1994; Falkenmark, 1999]. The policy distortions of treating water issues as mere sectoral concerns are being corrected by recognizing the circularity of the society-water-landscape-environment interactions [Falkenmark, 1999; Varis, 1999] and the overlaps among sectoral and general policies as well as institutions [Hufschmidt, 1993; Saleth and Dinar, 2004].

[3] A paradigmatic change is also evident with a shift from supply-oriented approaches focused on technical and hydrological solutions toward allocation-oriented approaches centered on economic and institutional solutions. Such a shift did lead to radical changes in the way water sector is organized and managed. In the place of a centralized and bureaucratic management, decentralized and user-based arrangements have emerged. Instead of organizing water management in terms of projects, water sources, or administrative units, river basins have emerged as a spatial and organizational context for water resources management. Today, most countries have adopted the river basin management (RBM) as a development framework and created or committed to create the river basin organizations (RBOs) as an organizational context. The adoption of RBM and the creation of RBOs are not, however, solutions in themselves but only a framework for addressing problems and seeking solutions. Their success depends on many economic, managerial, and policy conditions. Which are these conditions? How far these issues are addressed in the literature? What are the gaps and new areas requiring attention in future research? What are the significance and relative contributions of the paper included in this special section? This paper intends to provide indicative answers to these questions based on a brief review of existing literature and a quick overview of the papers included in the special section.

2. Existing Literature: Focus and Coverage

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Context
  4. 2. Existing Literature: Focus and Coverage
  5. 3. Special Section Papers: An Overview
  6. 4. Closing Remarks
  7. References

[4] The literature on RBM-related issues is vast and growing. Although an exhaustive review of this literature is beyond our purpose, a terse and issue-based review is necessary for setting the stage and context for the special section. Given the scope of this special section, the focus of such review is on issues related mainly to the economic, managerial, and policy dimensions of RBM. Other studies [e.g., United Nations, 1955; Saha and Barrow, 1981; Cohen, 1982; Lunquvist et al., 1985; Scudder, 1994; Kirby and White, 1994; Lee and Dinar, 1996; Barrow, 1998; Dourojeanni, 2001] provide a more detailed review of the RBM issues, methodologies, and country experiences. An overview of the literature suggests few notable patterns. First, there is an evolutionary shift in focus, i.e., from the engineering and hydrological issues in the early stage to the economic and managerial aspects during the 1970s and 1980s and, then, toward the environmental aspects, social concerns, and institutional issues in recent years. Second, consistent with the evolving perception and changing paradigm governing water resources, the approach became broader, the treatment became multidisciplinary, and the methodologies became sophisticated. Third, although the literature initially has a dominant focus on developed regions, the attention is now shifting increasingly toward the developing regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. An expanding coverage of regions did lead to a geographically more balanced literature, but there are still vast regional differences in the nature and quality of RBM studies. Finally, there is also a distinct geographic pattern in the overall focus of RBM studies. For instance, studies from developed countries have a predominant focus on water quality, in-stream protection, and environmental conservation, whereas those from developing countries are mainly concerned with water development, resource allocation, and social equity.

[5] As to the main issues covered in existing literature, technical and hydrological issues related to the development and management of multipurpose water projects received the attention in earlier works [e.g., United Nations, 1955, 1958]. However, there are also notable early works dealing with the socioeconomic aspects in project evaluation and water-based regional development [e.g., Clapp, 1955; Kraenzel, 1957; Krutilla and Eckstein, 1958]. In recent years, most of the economic works are linked to environmental implications of resource use based on models that integrate hydrology, agronomy, economics, and environment [e.g., Ward and Lynch, 1996; Su et al., 2002; Cai et al., 2003]. Pollution and water quality problems are the focus of many studies, especially those from the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia [e.g., Russell, 1996; Rode et al., 2002; Chen et al., 2003]. Social aspects such as resettlement [Scudder, 1994] and institutional issues such as organizational coordination [e.g., Ebong, 1988; Epps and Sorensen, 1996] and stakeholder participation [e.g., Mestre, 1997; Merrey and De Lange, 2003] are also getting due attention. As water sharing issues within multijurisdictional basins are becoming critical, research focus on the international dimensions of RBM is also growing [e.g., Dinar and Wolf, 1994; Chenoweth et al., 2001; Wichelns et al., 2003]. Other issues covered in present literature relate to the RBM implications of floods [e.g., Mustafa and Wescoat, 1997; Jacobs, 1999; Shim et al., 2002], interaction between surface and sub-surface water sources [e.g., Miller et al., 2003], catchment management and salinity [e.g., Greiner and Cacho, 2001], water quality problems from land use changes [e.g., Tong and Chen, 2002], urbanization [e.g., Randhir, 2003], and climatic change [e.g., Venema et al., 1997; Cohen et al., 2000].

[6] The expanding coverage of issues is largely an outcome of the changing circumstances and emerging problems encountered in different basins. Few of these issues are also generic as they recur across basins. Studies comparing RBM experience in two or more countries [e.g., Huaicheng and Beanlands, 1994; Jacobs, 1999; Merrey and De Lange, 2003] identify some of these common issues, which range from physical aspects and political arrangements to organizational structures and stakeholder roles. A persisting and the most common issue relates to upstream-downstream conflicts. These conflicts, though largely regional in nature, often manifest both as economic-ecologic-equity conflicts in regions such as Africa [Scudder, 1994; Barbier and Thompson, 1998] and as quantity-quality conflicts and salinity-sedimentation problems in countries such as Australia and China [Greiner and Cacho, 2001; Chen et al., 2003]. Besides the regional and sectoral conflicts within basins, there are also interest conflicts between the people within and those outside the basins [Scudder, 1994]. Such political conflicts are inevitable as emerging economic needs and technologies often link far-off areas with basin resources [Teclaff, 1996]. Another recurrent problem is the economic-ecologic conflicts, which can exist independent of the upstream-downstream issues. These conflicts manifest in terms of forest degradations, catchment disturbances, land losses from soil erosion and salinity, groundwater depletion, and water quality deterioration. These conflicts are also becoming more complex because tradeoffs exist not just among economic goals but even among ecological goals as well [Johnston et al., 2002].

[7] It is true that an integrated approach can help in resolving the ecological conflicts of economic activities. Yet there are limits to this approach as only a weak integration of the economic and ecological aspects is feasible [Russell, 1996]. This is in view of the inevitability of tradeoffs among competing objectives and the difficulty of bringing both aspects within common denominations. The usual approach to integration involves the use of economic values as a common denominator. However, these values have problems in reflecting the real ecological and social values of the resources, especially when interdependence, externalities, and intergenerational issues distort the process of evaluation and tradeoffs. Although RBM provides a coordination framework for planning and implementation, it does not presuppose either a monolithic approach or a single managerial arrangement for the entire basin. As a result, spatially differentiated approaches, multiple and coordinated managerial agencies, and pluralistic institutional arrangements are indispensable for an effective RBM [Venema et al., 1997; Mestre, 1997; Bhowmik, 1998]. This is particularly so in the context of multijurisdictional basins, though the creation of these basic conditions are much more challenging in these cases than in other basins [Rangeeley et al., 1994; Chenoweth et al., 2001]. However, international agreements and regional economic unions not only can overcome the difficulties of operational coordination but could even facilitate the perusal of common strategies across jurisdictions such as the Water Framework Directive of the European Union [Rode et al., 2002]. International agencies and donor organizations can also facilitate the formation of arrangements for basin coordination as happened in the case of the Danube Basin [Aertgeerts et al., 1997; Nachtnebel, 2000].

[8] Generally speaking, the literature is somewhat thin in terms of its coverage of institutional aspects and their managerial implications. Limited coverage apart, the treatment of institutional issues is also too general to unravel the deeper institutional underpinnings of RBM. However, there are studies that provide valuable insights on the managerial aspects of RMB, especially based on comparative analyses of basins both within and across countries [e.g., Sun, 1994; Huaicheng and Beanlands, 1994]. Many studies provide technical tools useful for facilitating managerial and policy decisions such as the econometric and simulation models (see Lee and Dinar [1996] for a comparative review of these models), multicriteria approach [e.g., Raj, 1995], geographic information system [e.g., Tong and Chen, 2002; Rode et al., 2002], and decision support system [e.g., Maksimovic and Makropoulos, 2002; Shim et al., 2002]. These technical aspects are certainly important, but the institutional aspects are much more critical for strengthening the managerial and policy dimensions of RBM.

[9] As to the institutional requirements of RBM, the creation of RBOs is only a necessary condition. The sufficient condition in this respect requires many other legal, policy, and organizational arrangements. They include regional and sectoral water entitlements, legalized but locally managed water rights, decentralized mechanisms for conflict resolution and accountability, water policies ranging from project selection and resettlement to water pricing and cost recovery, centralized mechanisms for coordinating sectoral agencies, multilayered user organizations, and regulatory arrangements for water quality and environmental standards. Some of these institutional issues are, indeed, addressed in existing literature with varying details and in different contexts [e.g., Perrit, 1989; Tortajada, 2001; Wurbs, 2003; Saleth and Dinar, 2004]. What is missing, however, is a structural treatment of institutions by considering their linkages and functionalities within the RBM framework. It is this institutionalizing function of RBM that is more important for promoting pluralistic governance with multiple actors (different jurisdictional entities, user groups, private organizations, and international agencies), managerial modes (centralized, polycentric, and decentralized), and different decision structures (bureaucracy, market, negotiation, and community). Apart from these institutional economics issues, existing literature is also somewhat silent on the political economy aspects of RBM. These aspects are critical not only because the ultimate decisions are politically motivated but also because of the increasing involvement of stakeholders and growing conflicts in multijurisdictional basins. As a result, aspects such as group dynamics, mediation arrangements, interorganizational relationships, and role of exogenous factors (e.g., economic and political reforms, multilateral economic and trade agreements, and international pressures) are all requiring serious research focus.

3. Special Section Papers: An Overview

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Context
  4. 2. Existing Literature: Focus and Coverage
  5. 3. Special Section Papers: An Overview
  6. 4. Closing Remarks
  7. References

[10] Apart from this introductory paper, the special section has eight papers written by 14 authors. Since one of these paper was already published in another issue of Water Resources Research [Barbier, 2003], only the remaining 7 papers are presented in this issue. Taken together, these papers cover nine basins, including two multijurisdictional basins, and address several issues related to the economic, managerial, and policy dimensions of RBM. Gichuki [2004] and Barbier [2003] cover two African basins dealing with the Ewaso Ngiro Basin in Kenya and the Hadejia-Jama'are Basin in Nigeria, respectively. Abdullaev and Molden [2004] and Cai and Rosegrant [2004] cover two Asian basins with their respective focus on the Syr Darya Basin in Uzbekistan and the Yellow River Basin in China. Bhat and Blomquist [2004] and Gerlak [2004] cover two European basins dealing with the Guadalquvir Basin in Spain and the multijurisdictional basin of the Danube, respectively. While Crase et al. [2004] deal with the multijurisdictional basin of Murray-Darling in Australia, Perry and Easter [2004] cover two basins, the Minnesota Basin in the United States and the Seyhan Basin in Turkey, within a comparative context. Besides their diversity in spatial coverage, these papers also have variations in terms of issue coverage and overall approach. The main issues addressed by the papers are the economic, policy, and managerial implications of variations in water productivity [Abdullaev and Molden, 2004], upstream-downstream externalities and conflicts [Gichuki, 2004; Barbier, 2003], economic-ecological tradeoffs [Cai and Rosegrant, 2004], water markets and water rights allocations [Crase et al., 2004], the scale incompatibility problems [Perry and Easter, 2004], political economy issues [Bhat and Blomquist, 2004], and international initiatives in strengthening basin coordination [Gerlak, 2004]. These issues and the approach with which they are treated in these papers are briefly described below.

[11] Spatial and temporal variations are a natural feature of most basins. In view of its economic and equity implications, this issue has remained a constant and implicit theme in many past studies. The paper by Abdullaev and Molden [2004] approaches this issue from the perspective of water productivity in the context of the Syr Darya Basin in Uzbekistan. While productivity variations are usually explained in terms of climatic and agronomic variations, this paper provides evidence for the role of institutional factors related to land tenure and farm organization. This paper also assumes significance for its reliance on water productivity analysis as a methodological tool for understanding spatial and temporal variations and agronomic zone as a managerial framework for implementing context-specific strategies for addressing such variations.

[12] The papers by Gichuki [2004] and Barbier [2003], although both address the same issue of externalities inherent in upstream-downstream conflicts, differ in terms of their focus, approach, and policy implications. Gichuki [2004] deals with the issue of how changes in upstream land and water use patterns exacerbate the hydrological externality of declining dry season flows and how this effect, in turn, leads to economic externalities on the downstream communities in the Ewaso Ngira Basin in Kenya. Although this paper is essentially descriptive, it is notable both for its analytical treatment of the effects of changing land-water dynamics as well as for its conceptual framework used for deriving technological, institutional, and managerial strategies for minimizing these effects. In contrast, Barbier [2003] provides a quantitative analysis of the benefits and costs associated with the large-scale upstream irrigation development in terms of the net loss of floodplain agricultural, fishing, and other livelihood activities in the case of the Hadejia-Jama'are basin in Nigeria. The model results show the economic value of the net losses from upstream water diversions to be substantial in present value terms, but the magnitude of these losses is not altered that much even with adaptive strategies such as regulated flood regimes. Since upstream water diversions are now irreversible, the adaptive strategies, despite their limited effects, are still very important in terms of their equity effects. This paper is notable for its reliance on economic approach and optimal control model for making managerial and policy decisions.

[13] The paper by Cai and Rosegrant [2004] deals with the issue of how to balance the increasing conflicts between agricultural and ecological water needs in the Yellow River Basin in China. Using the Yellow River component of a large global-level econometric simulation model and a scenario analysis involving water-saving and interbasin transfer options, this paper evaluates the effects of an increasing water withdrawal for agriculture and its impact on the ecological water needs of the basin. Although the simulation results are less optimistic under current water use patterns, they do suggest scope for trade-offs under alternative scenarios involving improved water use efficiency and additional supply from interbasin water transfers. Although neither the issue nor the approach is new, this paper is still very significant both for its focus on one of the agriculturally most important basins in the world as well as for its attention on the positive ecological contributions of interbasin transfers.

[14] The paper by Crase et al. [2004] evaluates the institutional issue of how far and under what conditions water markets can be a tool for managing basin water allocation by considering the specific case of the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia. Although water markets are growing in the basin and there is strong legislative and policy support for them, existing water property rights in Australia are not strong enough to support water allocation on a basin scale. Using a review of both the existing literature and the actual experience of water trading in the basin, this paper shows only a limited role for water markets and suggests therefore a more cautious policy in this respect. This conclusion is consistent with that of other studies, which show either a small share of total water being traded (see Mahan et al. [2002] in the case of actual water markets in Alberta in Canada and Saleth et al. [1991] in the case of potential water markets in an Illinois subbasin in the United States) or the trade constraints imposed by ecological and water quality issues (see Griffin and Hsu [1993] and Howe [1998] for different U.S. case studies). However, neither their thin nature nor their susceptibility to externalities can limit the relevance and strategic roles of market mechanisms in promoting negotiated solutions to water allocation conflicts, especially when they are structured within decentralized framework and regulatory arrangements.

[15] The centralization-decentralization dilemma is emerging as a major issue in the managerial dimension of RBM. The dilemma originates from an inherent conflict between the two major components of RBM, i.e., integrated approach and management decentralization. The conflict emerges as an integrated approach that stipulates basin as a unit of evaluation whereas decentralization requires managerial arrangements at the local scale. It is this practical problem of scale incompatibility and its externality implications that are the focus of the paper by Perry and Easter [2004]. Using a case study framework and anecdotal evidences, this paper illustrates the scale incompatibility problem in the context of two basins, Minnesota Basin in the United States and Seyhan Basin in Turkey, and shows how this problem is addressed through institutional options using the practical experiences observed in other basins in the United States, Mexico, Macedonia, and Japan. These institutional options involve the use of various forms of taxes/fees and regulations that internalize the externality to the level of appropriate management units.

[16] Considering the case of Guadalquivir River Basin in Spain, the paper by Bhat and Blomquist [2004] shows how the interplay of legal, organizational, and political economy factors determine the evolution and effectiveness of RBM. This paper is significant both for its focus on the relationships among the central government, RBO, stakeholders, and regional and local governments and for its analysis of how these relationships affect the national and basin goals related to water management. The strength and impact of these relationships are shaped by both internal factors (organizational evolution and stakeholder representation) and external factors (legal and policy developments). The paper by Gerlak [2004] evaluates how international initiatives can contribute to the development of multijurisdictional river basin institutions based on the experience of the Global Environment Facility in the Danube River Basin. While the same issue has been addressed by few other recent papers [e.g., Aertgeerts et al., 1997; Nachtnebel, 2000], the present paper assumes importance partly for its interpretation of the creation of multijurisdictional institutional arrangements as a provision of “public good” and partly for its updated assessment of the effectiveness of these arrangements in providing a governance framework for managing a multijurisdictional basin.

4. Closing Remarks

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Context
  4. 2. Existing Literature: Focus and Coverage
  5. 3. Special Section Papers: An Overview
  6. 4. Closing Remarks
  7. References

[17] Despite its brief and indicative nature the literature review attempted here is strong enough to provide a context for indicating the relative place and significance of the special section papers within existing literature. Viewing their issue coverage, approaches, and overall implications, the papers included in this special section both provide fresh perspectives on old problems (e.g., regional diversity and upstream-downstream externalities) and generate new insights on emerging and impending issues (e.g., water markets and water rights, scale incompatibility, political economy, and international dimension). Given the contributions of these papers and the issues that are still outstanding in existing literature, it is hoped that this special section will be instrumental both in catalyzing further research and in generating international interest on the economic, managerial, and policy aspects of RBM.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. 1. Context
  4. 2. Existing Literature: Focus and Coverage
  5. 3. Special Section Papers: An Overview
  6. 4. Closing Remarks
  7. References
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