Exploring factors that constrain and enable sustainable transboundary water governance in the Mackenzie River Basin
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Governance of transboundary water systems is complicated by factors such as institutional fragmentation, social and environmental change, competing values for and uses of water and power dynamics. These challenges exist in both international and federal transboundary contexts, although much of the scholarly attention has been on international transboundary watersheds. Sustainable transboundary water governance is an important goal given the fact that freshwater ecosystems are among the most rapidly degrading in the world. Governance, the ways in which decisions are made and implemented, can have a critical role to enable sustainability in transboundary watersheds. Many analyses of transboundary water systems provide only partial accounts of transboundary water governance because they focus primarily on the roles of governments and interjurisdictional institutions. Furthermore, analyses of federal transboundary water systems have not satisfactorily considered the role of power dynamics as possible constraints on transboundary water governance. Appreciation of the full complexity of transboundary water governance, and factors that constrain and enable sustainable transboundary water governance, requires considering governance processes at multiple levels and the variety of actors that may be involved therein. A power-analysis can facilitate consideration of which interests are advantaged in various governance processes that have implications for sustainable transboundary water governance. The purpose of this study is to explore factors that constrain and enable sustainable transboundary water governance in a federal transboundary water system. Explicitly assessing multi-level governance processes, and the ways in which power dynamics impact them, facilitates a consideration of their roles and contribution to transboundary water governance. This study’s purpose is achieved via the following objectives: 1) identify the jurisdictional levels at which federal transboundary water governance takes place in the Mackenzie River Basin, (MRB), Canada; 2) consider the design and performance of an interjurisdictional river basin organization (RBO) in the MRB; 3) determine the ways in which power dynamics impact a) collaboration and b) water use decisions within jurisdictions in the MRB; and 4) assess the role and contribution of a) an RBO, b) collaboration and c) water use decisions within jurisdictions to transboundary water governance within the MRB. Single and multiple case studies and qualitative data collection and analysis methods were used to achieve these objectives. Two hundred and ninety-six documents, 30 interviews and personal observations were collected and analyzed to achieve the study objectives. The MRB, a jurisdictionally and ecologically complex federal transboundary system in which three provinces, three territories, a federal government and Indigenous governments have responsibilities for water, provided an excellent empirical context in which to explore these issues. Upstream hydroelectric developments and oil sands mining have emerged as key transboundary concerns in this basin. The multiple perspectives, values, interests and power dynamics among key actors in the basin challenge governance that contributes to sustainability. Furthermore, as a basin that at 1.8 million km2 that drains approximately 20% of Canada’s land mass, a multi-level governance design is essential to achieving coordination and inclusion required to enable sustainable transboundary water governance. In fact, a number of multi-level governance initiatives, including an interjurisdictional water management institution, collaborations at various levels and major water use decisions, exist within and among jurisdictions in the basin. They are included as case studies in this dissertation. By considering multi-level governance processes and the ways in which power dynamics impact federal transboundary water systems, this study makes two major contributions to the transboundary water governance literature. First, it demonstrates the need to consider large transboundary water systems as systems of multi-level governance. Considering the ways in which governance processes at multiple levels interact may be key to identifying factors that constrain and enable sustainable transboundary water governance. Second, by undertaking a power analysis of a federal transboundary water context this study directly challenges assumptions in the literature that the presence of a central government or well-developed regulations within federal jurisdictions can temper federal water conflicts. This study’s assessment of the design and performance of an interjurisdictional institution, the ways in which power dynamics impact collaboration and water use decisions and consideration of the roles and contributions of multi-level governance processes in a federal transboundary water governance context provide empirical contributions to the transboundary water governance literature. The assessment of how power impacts collaboration in transboundary contexts adds a theoretical and empirical contribution to the collaborative governance literature.