Institutional aspects

Wikipedia defines institutions as structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals. To zoom in to the subject of ISARM institutions could be seen as those rules and organizations that coordinate groundwater and aquifer resources and interests across international borders.

Reason for transboundary institutionalizing

An often encountered problem in natural resources management is the scale misfit between the biophysical systems (aquifers) and the administrative entity (states) managing it. In the case of transboundary situations the administrative scale undershoots the biophysical scale and hence multiple administrative entities are needed to cover the whole biophysical system.


There are two key reasons to institutionalize the management of internationally shared aquifer resources. First of all, countries that share aquifer resources may face similar problems in their respective parts of the aquifer. These ‘collective' problems may caused by the fact that both countries are both in the same ‘hydro-economic' region and hence utilization of aquifer resources will have the same sort of consequences in both countries. Or countries may have to deal with a threat or driver external to both of them (like climate change) that causes similar difficulties in each country. Either way, a collaborative approach to deal with these collective problems might benefit both countries (e.g. pooling of resources needed to solve problems). To coordinate these concerted action transboundary institutions should be put in place.


Secondly, there is the possibility of spillover of hydrogeological consequences across the administrative borders (e.g. a groundwater contamination plume slowly moving across the border into another state). This causes unidirectional or transboundary externalities which are often seen as a potential source for water dispute in the area. To manage these spillovers and to prevent externalities turning into international conflicts states engage in some form of cooperation which needs to be institutionalized.   

Institutional organizational structures

Institutions contain both rules and the organizations that develop, implement, enforce and even need to comply with those same rules. In this section the issue of institutional organizational structures is briefly discussed.


Around the world, there is an enormous diversity in organizations within states that deal with groundwater management. It ranges from totally state-planned management with central government ministries and district-operating governmental agencies in one state to situations where groundwater management takes merely place at grass-root level by means of collective action of the people. In between there are states where groundwater management is carried out by a multiple of organizations at multiple levels and in multiple sectors within the government, the market and the civil society. In this latter case of so-called groundwater governance (different) parts of the management are carried out by ministries, governmental agencies, companies, NGOs, users organizations and informal structures. 


In each of the above described situations the organizations dealing with the inland groundwater management have a particular role with corresponding task, a mandate and responsibilities. None of the organizations however have a mandate or jurisdiction that crosses the national borders and that is exactly why transboundary institutionalization is such a complex issue.


Within the sets of possible organizations that deal with groundwater management it is the central government that is the most likely entity that is allowed to handle international and transboundary issues. However, management of transboundary groundwater by cooperation limited to only a governmental level bears the risk of hydro-politicizing the issue. It leaves out possible solutions that can be worked out by all those other organizations dealing with groundwater management.


It is clear that there is no clear-cut solution for the institutional structure needed for transboundary aquifer management but that it needs to be context-specific and be based on the hydrogeological, socio-economic, political and socio-cultural aspects within the countries involved.


Though there is little experience with institutional aspects of transboundary aquifer management yet there is much to learn from the experiences in dealing with transboundary rivers and lakes. In some cases already more than 50 years of international cooperation on some rivers and lakes has taken place (e.g.  the Rhine commission). It makes sense to learn from these river basin organizations (RBOs) and even to combine the management of internationally shared rivers, lakes and groundwater within such institutional structure when the various biophysical subsystems are interrelated.

Institutional activities and instruments

Transboundary groundwater management institutional activities are not principally different from activities that need to be done in case of national groundwater management. The activities include in an iterative approach 1) the monitoring of the groundwater system status and dynamics and of the groundwater use and needs, 2) the development of institutional instruments (the rules) that enable that groundwater needs are met in an sustainable way, 3) the implementation of these instruments, 4) monitoring whether the implemented measures are effective and 5) monitoring of groundwater stakeholders compliance with the rules, 6) and dispute resolution. Most of these activities are often already done within the nation by the set of organizations dealing within groundwater management.


Institutional instruments may be regulatory (like well registration, protection zones, licensing, allocation and property right, laws and agreement, binding agreements and policies), economic (subsidies, environmental taxes, tradable groundwater use and pollution rights, pricing of groundwater and electricity) or advisory (enabling access to information, expertise, funding and creating awareness, training and extension).


The ultimate crux of transboundary aquifer resources management is trying to find ways to jointly conduct those institutional activities and to develop institutional instruments that are multi-nationally accepted, applicable and valid. It is not hard to understand that this is an enormously complicated issue with many pitfalls since it invades the principle of national sovereignty.

Institutionalizing as a social learning process

Because of the complicating factors described above, institutionalizing of transboundary groundwater management should therefore rather be approached as an ongoing process of social learning. In this process it makes sense to start at a low-profile and low-risk level, then learn by doing and use that social knowledge to develop a process for dealing with constantly and incrementally more complex and sensitive issues. It seems logical to start this process with the exchange of ideas and information on low-profile issues by non-political stakeholders like scientists and groundwater system researchers. Then in the following phases exchange of more sensitive information could be organized and the monitoring carried out cooperatively or at least coordinated multi-laterally. In subsequent phases the activities of monitoring, problem identification, solution generation, implementation and even compliance monitoring should increasingly by carried out in a cooperative or even joint fashion.    


In each of these phases, different parts of the institutional organization structure may play a leading role. Hence the institutional structure should be able to constantly evolve and adapt. What is crucial for the institutionalization process is that the eventual multi-country cooperation should ideally be based on thrust and that thrust-building is a process that needs to be developed carefully and will take time.

Funding of the institutional aspects

Theoretically, countries will only engage into transboundary cooperation and/or management when the transaction costs of such cooperation are less than the costs of non-cooperation. From this point of view, international management of shared aquifers does not necessarily mean the need for additional financial resources. The reason behind this is that in an ideal situation the cooperation will bring countries from being in a sub-optimal condition of having collective problems and/or transboundary externalities into a more optimal state where these issues are solved. The idea is that there are high (often hidden) costs involved with these collective and transboundary problems. Solving these issues should free up somehow national expenditure needed for compensation of these hidden costs.     


Practically it may be impossible to relate the (hidden!) societal and environmental costs directly in a one-to-one fashion to the fact of non-cooperation in internationally shared aquifer resources. The societal and environmental costs in a certain country may be the responsibility of institutions totally different from the ones from engaging in transboundary groundwater management. One could thus question oneself whether the national expenditure which is potentially going to be saved by conducting internationally shared aquifer management will automatically flow back to the organizations working on it. So, in reality additional financial resources are most likely needed for those organizations in order to be able to carry out the transboundary institutional aspects of groundwater management.

Role of national groundwater governance, information and the public

It is clear that the success of two countries engaging into transboundary aquifer resource management is very much dependent on the ability of the national organizations in both countries to manage the inland groundwater. So it makes sense to spend effort to improve the national groundwater governance prior to or simultaneously with the transboundary groundwater governance.


Groundwater management either within the national or in the international context is very much about making informed decisions. Informed decisions can only be made by using relevant and up to date information based on collected and analyzed ‘groundwater data'. Transboundary aquifer resources management should put priority in generating this information based on internationally accepted standards and make it accessible in a uniform and transparent way. Special effort should be placed in delivering information symmetrically to all stakeholders via various channels and at various platforms taking into account the different mind-frames of the various stakeholders.


It is already often said that the one of the most complicating factors of groundwater management is the fact that there is a large number of individuals (e.g. well owners) that determine the status of the groundwater system. That large number makes monitoring of the groundwater use and users complicated, very costly and therefore almost impossible. Hence, because of this lack of ‘hard' monitoring possibilities, good groundwater management has very much to do with ‘soft' non-binding influencing of the behavior of all those users. The same is true for transboundary groundwater management. It will only be effective as long the as the people are willing to deal with it.  

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