Complex interdependencies in the Mekong River basin : explaining water cooperation

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Water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource. In the 1980’s a number of authors argued water was becoming a major source of conflict. They supported the ‘water war hypothesis’ which states that nations are prepared to go to war in their competition over water. But nowadays the conventional perception in the academic world is that water can induce cooperation as well as conflict. The Mekong River basin is an example that demonstrates conflict over water is not inevitable. The Mekong riparians share a history of conflict, and have many characteristics associated with conflict, like rapid economic growth, unstable governments and high population growth rates. Nonetheless, some of the riparians cooperated in the field of water management, even in times of conflict. A body for river management was set up before any conflict related to the development of the common water resources occurred. And although there is a lot of discussion about the best course of action for the basin, the riparians are praised for their cooperative ‘Mekong spirit’, and Mekong river cooperation is regarded as rather successful. River cooperation helped to overcome the mistrust fostered by years of conflict, and was a start for cooperation in other fields as well. The aim of this research is to explain the successful river cooperation in the Mekong river basin. In order to do this, it combines a systems perspective with a branch of international relations theory; liberalism. Liberalism offers the notion of complex interdependence, which holds that states are so dependent on each other in many fields, that it is too costly for them to go to war. Cooperation is a more favourable option, and liberalism predicts nations will form international organizations to manage their fields of interdependence together. Liberalism also offers assumptions about the drivers of cooperation, and puts forward some reasons why cooperation is so favourable. These liberalist assumptions are combined with insights from specific research on conflict and cooperation in river basins. The result is a list of fields of interdependence, from which this research starts exploring complex interdependence in the Mekong river basin.
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