Articles | Volume 12, issue 1
04 Feb 2008
 | 04 Feb 2008

Institutional design and regime effectiveness in transboundary river management – the Elbe water quality regime

I. Dombrowsky

Abstract. The literature on transboundary river management suggests that institutions play an important role in bringing about cooperation. However, knowledge about how such institutions should be designed in order to do so remains limited. One way to learn more about adequate institutional design is to assess the effectiveness of existing regimes, and to trace the causal relationships that lead to the respective outcomes. In order to gain further insights into the relationship between institutional design and regime effectiveness, this paper presents a study on the water quality regime of the International Commission for the Protection of the Elbe (ICPE). The analysis is based on a review of pertinent documents and ten qualitative interviews with Czech and German Commission members and NGO representatives. Particular emphasis has been put on determining the ICPE's specific contribution and the no-regime counterfactual as well as on the perceived expediency of the institutional arrangements.

The study shows overall that the countries were relatively successful in improving water quality in the Elbe basin. However, this outcome can only partly be attributed to the ICPE itself. Furthermore, the ICPE's contribution towards achieving the various goals varied significantly between the different areas of activity: it was relatively significant where the main responsibility for action lay with the public authorities, such as in the area of wastewater treatment and the establishment of an international alarm plan and model, but was practically non-existent in the reduction of non-point pollution from agriculture, where success depended on the behavior of individual private actors (farmers). The commission contributed towards problem solving by serving as a forum for the joint identification of priorities for action from a basin-wide perspective. The resulting international obligations increased the power of national water administrations and their access to funds. At the same time, the Commission's reporting to the public served as an enforcement mechanism. From a methodological point of view, the paper highlights the opportunities and limitations of a combined quantitative and qualitative approach to determining regime effectiveness.