Theories of Conflict and Cooperation Over Transboundary River Basins

  • Gábor BaranyaiEmail author
Part of the Water Governance - Concepts, Methods, and Practice book series (WGCMP)


Interstate cooperation over shared river basins is one of the most complex and difficult challenges of international relations. This is largely due to the natural asymmetry in the geographical position and interests of upstream and downstream riparian states. Such asymmetry gives rise to a range of collective action problems, i.e. situations where all concerned parties (basin states) would benefit from cooperation, but the magnitude and/or the difference in the associated costs to be borne can create an impediment to joint action. This cooperation dilemma has been the subject of a range of political theories trying to provide an explanation as to why certain states choose to collaborate over shared water resources while others do not. Over the past decades two major schools have emerged: one concentrating on the potential of conflicts (wars) triggered by competition for water and one focusing on the cooperation imperative of transboundary water resources. While the water wars theory has largely been proven unfounded, the cooperation school has also failed to provide a comprehensive explanation of the grossly divergent quality of co-riparian relations. Today, the mainstream theory is that conflict and cooperation coexist and they emerge largely as a function of the institutional capacity of the shared basin. Naturally, there exists a number of variables that in specific basins may influence riparian behaviour significantly and, as such, may turn out to be critical drivers of conflict or cooperation irrespective of the foregoing theoretical premises. These include geography and the availability of water, the role of water in national security, the geopolitical setting and non-water-related political integration, domestic issues, etc.


Conflict Cooperation Transboundary river basin Theories Institutional capacity 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Water ScienceUniversity of Public ServiceBudapestHungary

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