Resilience in Transboundary Water Governance: The Okavango River Basin

Take-away message. Governance of the Okavango River Basin provides a sound example of collaborative adaptive management in terms of both institutional and ecological resilience. States with treaties that include provisions for adaptive water allocation, extreme events, joint monitoring, information exchange, enforcement, dispute resolution, and joint management have been shown to be less prone to conflict over shared waters. Institutionally, the collection of Okavango treaties promotes collaboration particularly with respect to the establishment and operation of OKACOM, the river basin organization charged with joint management and information exchange. While the Okavango treaties do not allocate water explicitly, the low development pressure, a relative abundance of flow, and economic interest in instream flows may provide buffers against conflict while OKACOM establishes an allocation regime. In terms of adaptive governance, the following principles are necessary to account for scale and crucial to maintain legitimacy: each overlapping level of control must communicate and coordinate, engage the public while building the public’s capacity to participate, and have authority to act to address issues as they arise. The Okavango’s overlapping levels of control facilitate information flow both vertically (e.g., from on-the-ground locals up to supranational donor organizations and vice versa) and horizontally (e.g., from Botswana to Angola to Namibia), and emphasis in local capacity building and meaningful public participation invests in the long term adaptive capacity of basin governance. In short, the Okavango Basin is in a rare position in terms of its capacity to build adaptive institutions that govern a thriving and vital resource while at the same time experiencing relatively low pressure from competing interests because of the economic value of instream flows (e.g., ecotourism) and low development pressure.

Follow-up discussion question. Must instream flow provide an economic benefit before it will be weighed against water development? As applied specifically to the Okavango Basin: To what degree does ecotourism reduce the amount of ecological pressure on the Okavango and increase the institutional pressure on OKACOM to ensure the basin is developed sustainably? In other words, if instream flow had less direct economic value to the region, might development proceed unchecked?

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