Reciprocity in practice: the hydropolitics of equitable and reasonable utilization in the Lancang-Mekong basin


Equitable and reasonable utilization (ERU), the cornerstone of international water law, recognizes the rights of states to utilize shared water resources. However, there is ambiguity in ERU’s application, and upstream states often perceive it as against their interests. Recent research highlights the important role reciprocity plays in international water law, yet how reciprocity is practiced in transboundary water governance remains poorly understood. Combining literature on international law, hydropolitics and international relations, this article conceptualizes ‘reciprocity in practice’ for international watercourses as interconnected legal, social and political processes by which state and non-state actors negotiate ERU and distribute benefits and harms. We pay particular attention to power relations and perceptions of fairness that influence the form and (dis)continuity of reciprocity. We demonstrate our approach through an analysis of evolving legal regimes and issues of navigation, hydropower, flood and drought management, and economic regionalization in the Lancang-Mekong basin, focusing on relations between China and downstream states. We demonstrate how multiple forms of reciprocity occur simultaneously across issues that are often analyzed individually, complicating common narratives of China’s unilateralism. We show, however, that practiced positive reciprocity is weak and exclusive, generating distrust and resistance from those excluded or who experience harms. Overall, we suggest that processes of ‘reciprocity in practice’ are at the heart of meaningful negotiation, institutionalization and practice of ERU, and that, as a model of water allocation, ERU should be contextualized to wider process of allocation of benefits and harms that include but go beyond water, and in which power relations fundamentally matter.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. 1.

    The Water Convention does not include a list of factors, but the Guide to its implementation refers to Watercourses Convention, Art.6 (UNECE 2013).



Asian Development Bank


Environmental impact assessment


Equitable and reasonable utilization


Greater Mekong Subregion


Joint Committee on Coordination of Commercial Navigation On Lancang-Mekong River


Lancang-Mekong Cooperation


Mekong River Commission


Obligation not to cause significant harm


Strategic environmental assessment


  1. Bangkok Post (2016). China’s Mekong dam release ‘nothing special’. Bangkok Post (23 March).

  2. Biba, S. (2014). Desecuritization in China's behavior towards Its transboundary rivers: the Mekong River, the Brahmaputra River, and the Irtysh and Ili Rivers. Journal of Contemporary China, 23(85), 21–43.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Biba, S. (2018a). China’s hydro-politics in the Mekong: conflict and cooperation in light of securitization theory. Abingdon/New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Biba, S. (2018b). China’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ Mekong River politics: the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation from a comparative benefit-sharing perspective. Water International, 43(5), 622–641.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Boer, B., Hirsch, P., Johns, F., Saul, B., & Schurrah, N. (2016). The Mekong: A Socio-Legal Approach to River Basin Development. Abingdon/New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Browder, G., & Ortolano, L. (2000). The evolution of an international water resources management regime in the Mekong River basin. Natural Resources Journal, 40(3), 499–531.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Cano Pecharroman, L. (2018). Rights of nature: rivers that can stand in court. Resources, 7(13), 1–14.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Dellapenna, J. W. (2001). The customary international law of transboundary waters. International Journal of Global Environmental Issues, 1(3/4), 264–305.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Devlaeminck, D. (2018). Revisiting the substantive rules of the law of international watercourses: an analysis through the lens of reciprocity and the interests of China. Water Policy, 20(2), 323–335.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Devlaeminck, D. J. (2019). The legal pinciple of reciprocity in the peaceful management of transboundary watercourses: exploring the duty to cooperate, rules of procedure and self-help measures. Natural Resources Journal, 59(2), 301–320.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Devlaeminck, D. J. (2020). Reassessing the draft articles on the law of transboundary aquifers through the lens of reciprocity. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 1–16.

  12. Dore, J., & Lebel, L. (2010). Deliberation and scale in Mekong region water governance. Environmental Management, 46(1), 60–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Dore, J., Yu, X., & Li, K. Y. S. (2007). China’s energy reforms and hydropower expansion in Yunnan. In L. Lebel, J. Dore, R. Daniel, & Y. S. Koma (Eds.), Democratizing Water Governance in the Mekong Region (pp. 55–92). Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Eckstein, G. (2020). The status of the UN watercourses convention: does it still hold water? International Journal of Water Resources Development, 36(2–3), 429–461.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Elster, J. (2006). Fairness and norms. Social Research, 73(2), 365–376.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Elster, J. (2011). Reciprocity and norms. In M. Fleurbaey, M. Salles, M. Fleurbaey, M. Salles, & J. A. Weymark (Eds.), Social ethics and normative economics: Essays in honour of Serge-Christophe Kolm (pp. 327–338). Heidelberg: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Frank, M. R., Obradovich, N., Sun, L., Woon, W. L., Leveck, B. L., & Rahwan, I. (2018). Detecting reciprocity at a global scale. Science Advances, 4, 1–7.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Gaventa, J. (2006). Finding the spaces for change: a power analysis. IDS Bulletin, 37(6), 23–33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Gouldner, A. W. (1960). The norm of reciprocity: a preliminary statement. American Sociological Review, 25(2), 161–178.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Grünwald, R., Feng, Y., & Wang, W. (2020). Reconceptualization of the transboundary water interaction nexus (TWINS): Approaches, opportunities and challenges. Water International, 45(5), 458–478.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Ha, D. T., Ouillon, S., & Vinh, G. V. (2018). Water and suspended sediment budgets in the Lower Mekong from high-frequency measurements (2009–2016). Water, 10(7), 846–870.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Haffner, A. (2020). ‘Us’ vs ‘them’: The politics dictating the rise and fall of the Mekong. Southeast Asia Globe (23 April)

  23. Hirsch, P. (2016). The shifting regional geopolitics of Mekong dams. Political Geography, 51, 63–74.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Ho, S. (2014). River politics: China’s policies in the Mekong and the Brahmaputra in comparative perspective. Journal of Contemporary China, 23(85), 1–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Ho, S. (2017). Introduction to ‘transboundary river cooperation: actors, strategies and impact’. Water International, 42(2), 97–104.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. ICEM (2010). Strategic Environmental Assessment of Hydropower on the Mekong Mainstream: Final Report. Hanoi: International Center for Environmental Management (ICEM).

  27. ILA (1966). The Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers.

  28. ILC (1994). The law of non-navigational uses of international watercourses: draft articles and commentaries thereto adopted by the drafting committee on second reading (A/CN.4/L.493). Yearbook of the International Law Commission, II(2), 89-135.

  29. Joint Declaration (1975). Joint Declaration of Principles for Utilization of the Waters of the Lower Mekong Basin (13 January 1975).

  30. Keohane, R. O. (1986). Reciprocity in international relations. International Organization, 40(1), 1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Kinna, R., & Rieu-Clarke, A. (2017). The governance regime of the Mekong River Basin: can the global water conventions strengthen the 1995 Mekong agreement? International Water Law, 2, 1–84.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Kittikhoun, A., & Staubli, D. M. (2018). Water diplomacy and conflict management in the Mekong: from rivalries to cooperation. Journal of Hydrology, 567, 654–667.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Kolm, S. C. (2008). Reciprocity: An Economics of Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Komter, A. E. (2014). Idealized versus real-life reciprocity: how to strike the balance? Netherlands Journal of Legal Philosophy, 43(2), 158–171.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Leb, C. (2013). Cooperation in the Law of Transboundary Water Resources. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Lebel, L., Garden, P., & Imamura, M. (2005). The politics of scale, position, and place in the governance of water resources in the Mekong region. Ecology and Society, 10(2), 18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. LMC (2020). Vientiane declaration of the Third Mekong-Lancang (MLC) Leaders’ Meeting. Xinhuanet (24 August).

  38. Lu, X. X., & Siew, R. Y. (2006). Water discharge and sediment flux changes over the past decades in the Lower Mekong River: possible impacts of the Chinese dams. Hydrological Earth Systems Science, 10, 181–195.

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Macan-Markar, M. (2020). Vietnam puts the Mekong’s fate on ASEAN’s agenda. Nikkei Asian Review (26 February).

  40. Magee, D. (2006). Powershed politics: Yunnan hydropower under great western development. China Quarterly, 185, 23–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Magee, D. (2012). The dragon upstream: China’s role in Lancang-Mekong development. In J. Öjendal, S. Hansson, & S. Hellberg (Eds.), Politics and development in a Transboundary Watershed: The case of the lower Mekong Basin (pp. 171–194). Heidelberg: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  42. McCaffrey, S. (2019). The Law of International Watercourses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  43. McIntyre, O. (2006). The role of customary rules and principles of international environmental law in the protection of shared international freshwater resources. Natural Resources Journal, 46(1), 157–210.

    Google Scholar 

  44. McIntyre, O. (2011). The World Court's ongoing contribution to international water law: The Pulp Mills case between Argentina and Uruguay. Water Alternatives, 4(2), 124–144.

    Google Scholar 

  45. McIntyre, O. (2013). Utilization of shared international freshwater resources—the meaning and role of ‘equity’ in international water law. Water International, 38(2), 112–129.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. McIntyre, O. (2017). Substantive rules of international water law. In A. Rieu-Clarke, A. Allan, & S. Hendry (Eds.), Routledge handbook of water law and policy (pp. 234–246). Abingdon/New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  47. Mekong Agreement. (1995). Agreement on the cooperation for the sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin (5 April 1995).

  48. Mekong Statute. (1957). Statute of the committee for the co-ordination of investigations of the lower Mekong Basin.

  49. Mirumachi, N. (2015). Transboundary water politics in the developing world. Abingdon/New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Mirumachi, N., & Chan, K. (2014). Anthropocentric hydro politics? key developments in the analysis of international transboundary water politics and some suggestions for moving forward. Aquatic Procedia, 2, 9–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. MRC (2002). China signs data-sharing agreement. Mekong River Commission (April/June 2002).

  52. MRC (2019). Press release: MRC Secretariat, LMC water center ink first MOU for better upper-lower Mekong management. Mekong River Commission (18 December 2019).

  53. MRC (2020). Situation report on hydrological conditions in the Lower Mekong River Basin in January-July 2020. Vientiane: Mekong River Commission.

  54. MRC & MWR. (2016). Technical report—joint Observation and evaluation of the emergency water supplement from China to the Mekong River. Vientiane: Mekong River Commission.

  55. Niv-Solomon, A. (2017). Cooperation and protracted conflict in international affairs: Cycles of reciprocity. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Osborne, M. (2004). River at risk: The Mekong and the water politics Of China and Southeast Asia. Lowy Institute.

  57. Parameswaran, P. (2020). China’s Mekong security role in the headlines with new joint patrols. The Diplomat (31 March).

  58. Pukinskis, I. (2013). Mekong sediment basics - state of knowledge series 2. Vientiane, Lao PDR, Challenge Program on Water and Food.

  59. Räsänen, T., Someth, P., Lauri, H., Koponen, J., Sarkkula, J., & Kummu, M. (2017). Observed river discharge changes due to hydropower operations in the Upper Mekong Basin. Journal of Hydrology, 545, 28–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  60. Roykaew, N. (2019). China must be sincere on Mekong. Bangkok Post (17 July).

  61. Sadoff, C., & Grey, D. (2002). Beyond the river: the benefits of cooperation on international rivers. Water Policy, 4(5), 389–403.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Sadoff, C., & Grey, D. (2005). Cooperation on international rivers: a continuum for securing and sharing benefits. Water International, 30(4), 420–427.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Sangbana, K. (2017). The role of non-state actors in the development and implementation of international water law. In A. Rieu-Clarke, A. Allan, & S. Hendry (Eds.), Routledge Handbook of Water Law and Policy (pp. 287–296). Abingdon/New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  64. Santasombat, Y. (2011). The River of life: Changing ecosystems of the Mekong Region. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.

    Google Scholar 

  65. Sneddon, C., & Fox, X. (2006). Rethinking transboundary waters: a critical hydropolitics of the Mekong basin. Political Geography, 25(2), 181–202.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Tian, F., & Liu, H. (2016). ‘China’s water Hegemony in Asia’ or ‘Shared Rivers, Shared Futures’: Which? Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Kingdom of Thailand.

  67. Tian, F., Liu, H., Hou, S., Li, K., Lu, H., Ni, G., Mu, X. & Gao, B. (2020). Drought Characteristics of Lancang-Mekong River Basin and the Impacts of Reservoir Regulation on Streamflow. Centre for International Transboundary Water and Eco-Security, Tsinghua University and Department of Hydraulics, China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research.

  68. Tiezzi, S. (2016). Facing Mekong Drought, China to Release Water From Yunnan Dam. The Diplomat (16 March).

  69. UNECE. (2013). Guide to Implementing the Water Convention (ECE/MP.WAT/39). United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

  70. Victor, D., & Agamuthu, P. (2014). Policy trends of strategic environmental assessment in Asia. Environmental Science & Policy, 41, 63–76.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  71. Wells-Dang, A. (2016). Prospects for regional cooperation on environmental impact assessment in Mainland Southeast Asia. Contemporary Southeast Asia, 37(3), 406–431.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  72. Wouters, P.K., Vinogradov, S., Alan, A., Jones, P., & Rieu-Clarke, A. (2005). Sharing Transboundary Waters—An Integrated Assessment of Equitable Entitlement: The Legal Assessment Model. UNESCO International Hydrological Programme.

  73. Wouters, P., & Chen, H. (2013). China’s ‘soft-path’ to transboundary water cooperation examined in the light of two UN global water conventions-exploring the ‘Chinese way’. Journal of Water Law, 22(6), 229–247.

    Google Scholar 

  74. Yang, Y. (2019). False report undermines Mekong cooperation. Bangkok Post (12 July).

  75. Zawacki, B. (2019). Implications of a crowded field: sub-regional architecture in ACMECS member States. The Asia Foundation.

  76. Zawahri, N. A., & Hensengerth, O. (2012). Domestic environmental activists and the governance of the Ganges and Mekong Rivers in India and China. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 12, 269–298.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Zeitoun, M., & Mirumachi, N. (2008). Transboundary water interaction I: reconsidering conflict and cooperation. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 8, 297–316.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  78. Zeitoun, M., Warner, J., Mirumachi, N., Matthews, N., McLaughlin, K., Woodhouse, M., et al. (2014). Transboundary water justice: a combined reading of literature on critical transboundary water interaction and ‘justice’, for analysis and diplomacy. Water Policy, 16(S2), 174–193.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Zhang, H., & Li, M. (2020). China’s water diplomacy in the Mekong: a paradigm shift and the role of Yunnan provincial government. Water International, 45(4), 347–364.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  80. Zhong, Y., Tian, F., Hu, H., Grey, D., & Gilmont, M. (2016). Rivers and reciprocity: perceptions and policy on international watercourses. Water Policy, 18(4), 803–825.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  81. Zhuning, L. (2010). Greater Mekong Subregion cooperation in hydropower development and power interconnection: potentials, challenges and progress. In De Jong, W., Snelder, D. & Ishikawa, N. (Eds.) Transborder Governance of Forests, Rivers and Seas. London/Washington D.C.: Earthscan.

Download references


We sincerely appreciate the constructive critical feedback from Dr. John Dore and two anonymous reviewers that has substantially improved the paper.


Dr. Middleton’s contribution received support from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Australian Government, and was partly an output of Collaborative Research Grants under Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET) Phase 3 funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). Dr. Devlaeminck’s contribution received support from the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (Project No. 2019 CDJSK 08 XK 07).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to David J. Devlaeminck.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Availability of data and material

Not applicable.

Code availability

Not applicable.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Middleton, C., Devlaeminck, D.J. Reciprocity in practice: the hydropolitics of equitable and reasonable utilization in the Lancang-Mekong basin. Int Environ Agreements (2020).

Download citation


  • UN Watercourses Convention
  • Mekong River Commission
  • Lancang-Mekong Cooperation
  • Lancang dam cascade
  • Equitable and reasonable use