Water Governance in Federal Rivers:
Building Resilience to Drought and Water Scarcity

The Rio Grande/Bravo:
An Archetypical Federal River under Pressure

The Rio Grande / Bravo River of the US and Mexico has been the laboratory for developing and testing a framework to assess the patterns of conflict and cooperation across sub-national and international political borders in the face of severe drought and water scarcity. While many frameworks for transboundary governance emphasise the country-to-country relationships in international rivers, the Rio Grande/Bravo demonstrates also the importance of cooperation and conflict at the ‘meso-scale’ between the sub-national governments (3 in the US, 5 in Mexico). Severe, sustained drought and water scarcity have strained relationships across political borders within each country as much, if not more, than between them.

Some questions addressed in our work
  • What are the barriers, incentives and institutions for cooperation across sub-national political borders?
  • Does decentralisation enhance resilience to drought and water scarcity?
  • How well do institutions handle tensions and disputes between governments in the face of chronic pressures and extreme events?
  • What can international rivers learn from federal rivers? And vice versa?

The Agenda

Advance our understanding of the factors (institutions, infrastructure and information) influencing cooperation, conflict resolution and capacity to adapt to droughts and water scarcity in federal rivers.

Develop case studies in different federal rivers to gather context-specific evidence and transferable lessons.

Build a global database using a data architecture and coding process to collect, store and analyse physical, institutional and socioeconomic data. The database is being designed based on the input and needs of decision-makers, drawing on primary data, field research, local expertise and tools for assessing how institutions influence social, economic and environmental outcomes.

Engage decision-makers in governments, civil society, business and multi-lateral organisations to inform collective action strategies and progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals, including the role of sub-national governments and inter-governmental cooperation in SDG 6.5-6.6, and within the framework of the OECD Water Governance Initiative.

Our Network

We have convened two international meetings in Oxford (2012) and Colorado (2016) to form a world-class network of over 35 researchers and practitioners, providing on-the-ground expertise in 10 regions on all 6 inhabited continents.

Lead Specialists


Garrick, D., L. De Stefano, F. Fung, J. Pittock, E. Schlager, M. New and D. Connell (2013). "Managing hydroclimatic risks in federal rivers: a diagnostic assessment." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. 371(2002): 20120415.

Garrick, D. E., G. R. Anderson, D. Connell and J. Pittock (2014). Federal Rivers: Managing Water in Multi-Layered Political Systems, Edward Elgar Publishing.

Garrick, DE, E Schlager, and S Villamayor-Tomas. 2016. "Governing an International Transboundary River: Opportunism, Safeguards, and Drought Adaptation in the Rio Grande." Publius: The Journal of Federalism 46 (2):170-198.

Garrick, D. E., & De Stefano, L. (2016). Adaptive capacity in federal rivers: coordination challenges and institutional responses. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 21, 78-85


Joint Initiative between the Forum of Federations and the Oxford Water Network