Openness, sustainability, and public participation: New designs for transboundary river basin institutions

Lenard Milich, Robert G. Varady

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


The world's transboundary environmental institutions typically are driven from the top, function behind closed doors, disregard sustainability, and rely on technical fixes or regulatory mechanisms. This article compares those approaches, as manifested in various river basin commissions, to a new, more democratic model being tested in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Water factors into many transboundary environmental problems. More than 300 river basins are shared by two or more countries. The authors examine seven international river basin compacts, sketch four common conceptual paradigms, and argue that these models mostly ignore local needs and public inputs and sometimes also fail in their explicit objectives. The border between the United States and Mexico offers a more promising design. There, as a result of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, a new, innovative authority, the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC), has emerged. This institution has been fashioned to protect local interests and to sustain its activities environmentally and financially. We examine how well the BECC has fulfilled its promise of openness, transparency, and binationality, and conclude that properly adapted, the model's roots-openness, transparency, capacity building, bottom-up design, and sustainability-could take hold in other transboundary areas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)258-306
Number of pages49
JournalJournal of Environment and Development
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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