River Hardware and Software: Perspectives on National Interest and Water Governance in the Mekong River Basin

  • Philip HirschEmail author
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Geography book series (BRIEFSGEOGRAPHY)


At a global level, river basin development and management has shifted from a ‘hardware’-driven approach based around engineering river systems in the form of dams, diversions and other large structures, toward a ‘software’-driven approach under the broad rubrics of governance and integrated water resource management. Nevertheless, large-scale water resource development is still being pushed ahead. There is clearly not an ‘either/or’ scenario in terms of hardware and software approaches to river management. This chapter examines the implications of new approaches to river basin governance for the planning and implementation of river engineering structures in a transboundary river setting. The context for the study is the Mekong river basin. The Mekong has achieved prominence among the world’s more than 260 river basins that cross national boundaries, as a river and a basin that is actively managed across borders. One of the reasons for such prominence is the established institutional basis for cooperation among the four lower countries of the basin and the international support for this governance framework. Another is the longstanding and continuing plans for significant impoundment and diversion of the river and its tributaries. At present, the Mekong is moving toward something of a crisis of transboundary water governance. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is at the heart of this crisis. At one level, the conundrum is the tension between management of the river for ecological sustainability and social justice, on the one hand, and the drive for development of a relatively under-exploited set of water resources on the other. This tension is exaggerated in a river basin whose population remains economically poor and heavily dependent on the natural resource base for livelihood. At another level, the conundrum is one of scale of governance, and this poses both challenges and opportunities for the MRC as an integrated water resource management agency.


Water governance Transboundary issues Integrated water resources management Mekong river commission Scaling issues 



This chapter is based in part on research carried out with the support of the Australian Research Council and Danish Overseas Development Assistance. Please note that the original manuscript was produced in 2006.


  1. Biswas A, Varis O, Tortajada C (2005) Integrated water resources management in South and South-East Asia. Oxford University Press, New DelhiGoogle Scholar
  2. Blatter J, Ingram H (1998) States, markets and beyond: governance of transboundary water resources. Nat Resour J 40(2):439–473Google Scholar
  3. Boesen J, Ravnborg HM (2003) From water wars to water riots: lessons from transboundary water management. Danish Institute for International Studies, CopenhagenGoogle Scholar
  4. Ekbladh D (2002) “Mr TVA”: grass-roots development, David Lilienthal, and the rise and fall of the Tennessee valley authority as a symbol for US overseas development, 1933–1973. Dipl Hist 26(3):335–374CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Franks T (2004) Water governance—what is the consensus? The water consensus—identifying the gaps. University of Bradford, BradfordGoogle Scholar
  6. He DM, Chen LH (2002) The impact of hydropower cascade development in the Lancang-Mekong Basin, Yunnan. Mekong Update Dialogue 5(3):2–4Google Scholar
  7. Hirsch P (2001) Globalisation, regionalisation and local voices: the Asian development bank and rescaled politics of environment in the Mekong region. Singap J Trop Geogr 22(3):237–251CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hirsch P, Wyatt A (2004) Negotiating local livelihoods: scales of conflict in the Se San river basin. Asia Pac Viewp 45(1):51–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hirsch P, Jensen KM, Boer B (2006). National interests and transboundary water governance in the Mekong. Australian Mekong Resource Centre, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney in collaboration with DanidaGoogle Scholar
  10. Kliot N, Shmueli D, Shamir U (2001) Institutions for management of transboundary water resources: their nature, characteristics and shortcomings. Water Policy 3(3):229–255CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. McCormack G (2001) Water margins: competing paradigms in China. Criti Asian Stud 33(1):5–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. McCully P (1996) Silenced rivers: the ecology and politics of large dams. Zed Books, LondonGoogle Scholar
  13. Molle F, Wester P, Hirsch P (2006) River basin development and management. Water for food, livelihoods and environment: a comprehensive assessment. Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, ColomboGoogle Scholar
  14. Pante F (1996) Investing in regional development: the Asian development bank. In: Stensholt B (ed) Developing the Mekong subregion. Monash Asia Institute, Clayton, pp 16–21Google Scholar
  15. Plinston D, He DM (1999) Water resources and hydropower. Policies and strategies for the sustainable development of the Lancang river basin. ADB TA-3139. PRC Asian Development Bank, ManilaGoogle Scholar
  16. Shah T, Roy AD, Qureshi AS et al (2003) Sustaining Asia’s groundwater boom: an overview of issues and evidence. Nat Resour Forum 27(2):130–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Shiva V (2002) Water wars: privatisation pollution and profit. Pluto Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  18. Svendsen M, Wester P, Molle F (2005) Managing river basins: an institutional perspective. In: Svendsen M (ed) Irrigation and river basin management: options for governance and institutions. CABI Publishing, Wallingford, pp 1–18CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Thomas DE (2005) Developing watershed management organizations in pilot sub-basins of the Ping river basin. Office of natural resources and environmental policy and planning. Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, BangkokGoogle Scholar
  20. Wolf A (1999) Criteria for equitable allocations: the heart of international water conflict. Nat Resour Forum 23(1):3–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. World Commission on Dams (2000) Dams and development: a new framework for decision making. Earthscan, LondonGoogle Scholar
  22. Yang G (2004) Global environmentalism hits China. Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, New HavenGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian Mekong Resource Centre, School of Geosciences (F09)University of SydneySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations