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Resilience in Transboundary Water Governance: the Okavango River Basin

Olivia O. Green, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Barbara A. Cosens, University of Idaho College of Law
Ahjond S. Garmestani, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


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When the availability of a vital resource varies between times of overabundance and extreme scarcity, management regimes must manifest flexibility and authority to adapt while maintaining legitimacy. Unfortunately, the need for adaptability often conflicts with the desire for certainty in legal and regulatory regimes, and laws that fail to account for variability often result in conflict when the inevitable disturbance occurs. Additional keys to resilience are collaboration among physical scientists, political actors, local leaders, and other stakeholders, and, when the commons is shared among sovereign states, collaboration between and among institutions with authority to act at different scales or with respect to different aspects of an ecological system. At the scale of transboundary river basins, where treaties govern water utilization, particular treaty mechanisms can reduce conflict potential by fostering collaboration and accounting for change. One necessary element is a mechanism for coordination and collaboration at the scale of the basin. This could be satisfied by mechanisms ranging from informal networks to the establishment of an international commission to jointly manage water, but a mechanism for collaboration at the basin scale alone does not ensure sound water management. To better guide resource management, study of applied resilience theory has revealed a number of management practices that are integral for adaptive governance. Here, we describe key resilience principles for treaty design and adaptive governance and then apply the principles to a case study of one transboundary basin where the need and willingness to manage collaboratively and iteratively is high—the Okavango River Basin of southwest Africa. This descriptive and applied approach should be particularly instructive for treaty negotiators, transboundary resource managers, and should aid program developers.

Key words

adaptive governance; international water law; Okavango; resilience; transboundary water governance; treaty design
Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087