The Effectiveness of the Governance of Transboundary Aquifers: A Framework for Analysis
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Groundwater is crucial to life in sustaining ecosystems and providing water for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use. Due to the complexity of observing the status of this ‘hidden resource’, groundwater can be gradually depleted or polluted until impacts are felt. Effective groundwater governance is crucial to averting or mitigating such sustainability problems. Until a few decades ago, groundwater was neglected in environmental governance on the national, transboundary, and international level. This study focuses on groundwater-bearing geological formations that traverse national boundaries, also known as transboundary aquifers. Currently, approximately 1-2% of the world’s transboundary aquifers are the primary subject of some type of institutionalised governance. This study is the first ever attempt to provide a framework for the comparative analysis of transboundary aquifer governance from the perspective of effectiveness. It pertains to the cross-comparison of eight case studies – three aquifers in Africa, one in Europe, one in the Middle East, two in North-America, and one in South-America – in terms of institutionalisation and four dimensions of institutional design: (a) knowledge and scientific learning; (b) robustness of principles of international law; (c) legality; and (d) monitoring and data-exchange. The conclusion is twofold. Firstly, there are large variations in both the type of institutions and institutional design. Secondly, institutional design can hardly be linked to effectiveness in terms of problem-solving in the absence of data on the status of the transboundary aquifer. This suggests that institutional effectiveness is influenced by problem structure rather than institutional design. The overall conclusion is thus that a ‘one size fits all’ solution to effective governance of transboundary aquifers does not currently exist. Further research may substantiate the hypotheses that link institutional design and impact to contextual factors such as (a) third party involvement, (b) the distribution of the problem and stakes vested in the resource between the country segments, (c) and unilateral groundwater development. The dynamics of power and stakes in transboundary aquifer governance may also be further explored.