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.
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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
Mekong River Commission
Obligation not to cause significant harm
Strategic environmental assessment
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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).
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Middleton, C., Devlaeminck, D.J. Reciprocity in practice: the hydropolitics of equitable and reasonable utilization in the Lancang-Mekong basin. Int Environ Agreements (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-020-09511-6
- UN Watercourses Convention
- Mekong River Commission
- Lancang-Mekong Cooperation
- Lancang dam cascade
- Equitable and reasonable use