If we have to look for a shining example of the spirit of cooperation among nations to resolve their disputes and commonly manage a river basin, Danube River would be my choice.
Crossing through ten countries, its 2,780 km course is spread from Germany’s Black Forest to the Black Sea. The drainage basin covers 817,000 square km, including all of Hungary and most of Romania, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, and Slovakia. Its benefits are also shared by significant parts of Bulgaria, Germany, Czech Republic, Moldova, Serbia, Ukraine and Bosnia Herzegovina. Small parts of Italy, Switzerland, Albania and Poland are also included in the basin. The Danube River discharges into the Black Sea through a delta, which is the second largest wetland area in Europe.
Until the beginning of the 19th century there were conflicts and disputes regarding the navigational and non-navigational use of the Danube. As the riparian states were allied with hostile political blocs for decades, the conflicts in the basin tended to be both frequent and intricate and the search for their resolution was a formidable task.
Surprisingly, the flow allocation is not a major source of conflict in the region. Navigation for military and commercial use has historically driven disputes and development of the river. After World War II, the nature of disputes changed and mostly revolved around flood control and pollution. It is a matter of pride for the Europeans that Danube Basin countries have concluded over 70 bilateral and multilateral treaties and agreements to deal with said issues.
The river has many similarities with our mighty Indus. The annual flow of water is almost the same. Also like Indus, the Upper Danube is characterised as a mountain stream, with low water temperature and higher velocities. The Middle Danube begins to slow down and spread out. The Lower Danube consists of wide floodplains and even slower velocities.
The first Danube hydro dam was built in 1927 at Vilshofen (lower Bavaria now Germany). So far, more than 700 dams and weirs have been built on the river and its tributaries. The upper part of the Danube has been ideal for building hydropower plants due to the river’s considerable natural gradient. Of the 62 large dams on the Danube, 59 are on the first 1,000 km of the river — the others being Gabcikovo in Slovakia and another two dams at the Iron Gates between Serbia and Romania. On average, on the Upper Danube the river is interrupted by a dam and accompanying impoundment every 16 km. The total installed hydropower capacity in the Danube basin is in the order of 29,200 MW. The two largest dams are the Iron Gate dams I and II, completed in 1972 and 1984 respectively. They form part of the border between Serbia and Romania and include two hydroelectric power plants. According to the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), more than 80% of the Danube is regulated for flood protection, while approximately 30% of its length is additionally impounded for hydropower generation. Stretches of flood protection and hydropower generation also coexist.
Prior to World War II, the European Commission of the Danube was responsible for administration of the River. After the war at a 1948 conference in Belgrade, the East Bloc riparian states – a majority of the delegates – shifted control over navigation to the exclusive control of each riparian country. This Belgrade Convention also gave the Commission semi-legislative powers, but only regarding navigation and inspection. The main task of the Danube Commission has historically been to assure navigation conditions along the river. In addition, the Commission has developed regional plans for river projects. The Commission meets once a year or in special session and though a majority vote is sufficient to pass a proposal, in practice unanimity is solicited.
The Commission is now grappling with the problem of pollution in the river water. The Danube passes by numerous large cities, including four national capitals (Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade), receiving the attendant waste of millions of individuals and their agriculture and industry. Recognising the increasing degradation of water quality, the riparian countries of the Danube signed the Bucharest Declaration, a commendable achievement in 1985. This would lead, in turn, to the 1994 Danube River Protection Convention.
An interesting example on basin management of rivers in South East Asia pertains to the Mekong River, which is the eighth largest river in the world in terms of discharge and twelfth in terms of length. Originating from over 4,500 meters’ elevation in the Tanghla mountain range on the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai province in south-western China, the Mekong flows through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam over a total length of 4,880 kilometres, terminating in the South China Sea. From this geographical location, the Mekong divides itself into the upper basin from its origination in China to the junction of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. The lower basin starts downstream from the junction and comprises parts of Laos, northeast Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Ravaged by wars of liberation and inter and intra-country conflicts which have had massive, long-term social, economic and cultural impact on its people, the Mekong Basin is well-known as a major source of livelihood. It has also created hardships for its people during the wet season flooding; the major devastation took place in 1961, 1978, 1991, 1996 and 2000. Water shortages also arise in the dry season, particularly in southwestern region of the Mekong Delta, which as a result lead to seawater intrusion in the lower delta.
Mekong river management is successful application of comprehensive approach to planned development of an international river. As it is one of the least developed major rivers in the world, there are difficulties inherent in implementing joint management between the diverse riparian nations. To coordinate, supervise and control the planning and investigation of water resources development projects in the Lower Mekong Basin, a Mekong Committee comprising Cambodia, Laos PDR, Thailand and Vietnam was established in 1957 with the help of United Nations and other western countries. The Committee was re-ratified as Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995. China and Myanmar became Dialogue Partners of the MRC in 1996 and are now working together within a cooperation framework.
Throughout the history of Committee and later Commission, water allocations have not been an issue as “reasonable and equitable use” for the basin defined in detail since 1975 is in operation.
In 1965, Laos and Thailand signed an agreement on power generation project on Nam Ngum River, a Mekong tributary within Laos. Thailand agreed to buy surplus power. The exchange of power for foreign capital never discontinued, despite high tensions between the two countries.
More recently, the expansion of China’s economy, population growth, demand for increased agriculture yields, growing household demand of water for consumption and sanitation and shortages of electricity has prompted Chinese officials to exploit the potential of the Mekong’s Upper Basin. It is not, therefore, surprising that China has proposed the building of 15 dams for hydroelectric power. This unilateral development project alone would have large implications for the downstream riparian states. Moreover, another challenge to MRC is the recent decision of Laos and Thailand to go ahead with damming the Mekong which was strongly contested by Cambodia and Vietnam. However, the forum of MRC though not powerful yet provides a platform where the member countries discuss such intense issues.