The weakness of the strong: re-examining power in transboundary water dynamics

  • Jacob D. Petersen-Perlman
  • Itay Fischhendler


This article proposes a re-examination of how power is conceptualized within transboundary hydropolitics by arguing that power has been misrepresented in the water resources literature. Overemphasis on the factors of a country’s relative power, riparian position, and technological potential to exploit the resource has led to assumptions that the non-hegemon(s) is often unable to achieve their own positive outcomes and that the outcomes of interactions between hegemons and non-hegemons are predictable and detrimental. However, it appears that there are many examples that run counter to the power narrative that employs these factors. This study argues that this overemphasis neglects hegemonic vulnerabilities, which, when included with hegemonic capacities, are much more instructive in explaining transboundary water dynamics. The sources of the weakness of the strong of the alleged hegemon originates from several sources, including interlinkages between water and non-water issues, internal and external expectations, and consideration of whether the water-related issue at hand is crucial to each party’s survival or whether the party has the luxury to survive the outcome of the resolution. These factors allow for non-hegemons to achieve more favorable outcomes and, when incorporated in analysis, provide a fuller picture of the true power balance in each transboundary water interaction. We therefore call for a reconceptualization of power dynamics in transboundary waters that accounts for structural weaknesses present within all parties.


Transboundary water Conflict and cooperation Hegemony Hydro-hegemony 



The authors are grateful to Samer Alatout, Shlomi Dinar, Gabriel Eckstein, Ashok Swain, and Erika Weinthal for their insightful feedback and suggestions. We also wish to thank three anonymous reviewers for their comments and the Ken Alberman Fellowship for their support.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Water Resources Research CenterUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeographyHebrew University of JerusalemMount Scopus, JerusalemIsrael

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