At the Confluence: Transnational Water Management and Local Participation in Turkey's Kura River Basin

By Jeanene Mitchell
Submitted to Session P4978 (Water Politics, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Caucasus; Turkey;
Environment; Turkish Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Using Turkey’s Kura river basin as an ethnographic case study, this paper asks how multilateral projects in transboundary water management attempt to integrate transnational, national and local actors in project implementation, and under what conditions they are able to do so. The Kura river basin, located in northeastern Turkey and the South Caucasus, is the most important watershed in the region in terms of surface area, water flow, freshwater ecosystems, and socioeconomic importance. The basin is threatened by transboundary water management problems, including flooding and drought, depletion of groundwater reserves and water pollution. I attempt to explain the process of multi-level water resource governance in the Kura by considering the influence of an external set of powerful actors influencing negotiations among levels of stakeholders, and thus the management of resources: organizations which comprise the international development community. My work pays particular attention to the role of local communities in transboundary water projects, and how development organizations attempt to incorporate local actors in project implementation.

Because the literature on Turkey and transboundary water resource management has overwhelmingly focused on the Tigris-Euphrates basin, the critical role of Turkey in the Kura river basin has been characterized by scholars as understudied and barely considered. In light of Turkey’s plans for hydropower development in this basin, and the potential impact on water flow and pollution levels for downstream communities, the lack of studies on the Kura is a major gap in studies of transboundary river basins in Turkey.

Building upon literatures in contemporary Turkish studies (Turkey’s regional cooperation on water and resource management), comparative political science (transnational actors and state-society relations), and critical development studies (development project implementation and evaluation), my political ethnographic study demonstrates that for implementing transnational development projects at the local level, the existence of strong local civil society organizations is not a sufficient condition. Rather, project support by mid-level bureaucrats at the national level is the unexpected link to incorporating local actors in project implementation. Without “champions” in the mid-level bureaucracy to endorse the project and act as knowledge and power brokers between local-level stakeholders and development professionals, international development projects in resource management are unable to establish sustained collaboration with local actors in project implementation. At the same time, obtaining the support of mid-level bureaucrats has the paradoxical effect of solidifying institutional arrangements which impede transboundary collaboration on resource management, limiting the perceived effectiveness of water-related development projects.