How is law deployed, understood, and (re)produced by actors operating in, around, and far afield from the Mekong river basin (MRB)? How does revealing the plurality of legal and governance structures at work in this area offer greater clarity regarding the sources of, and solutions to, transboundary water conflicts? In The Mekong: A Socio-Legal Approach to River Basin Development, Ben Boer and an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Australian universities respond to these queries in a brilliantly singular voice through an impressively comprehensive charting of regional riparian legal undercurrents.
Using a socio-legal lens, the book drills down to great depths to uncover the unsettled and complex nature of water governance in four of the states that make up the lower MRB—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. These main cases join with case studies of interstate “dam suites” (p. 36) to showcase the cross-cutting applications of law and sources of legal influence at varying levels of governance. This ethnographic effort includes more than fifty in-depth interviews, with actors ranging from villagers to representatives from NGOs to high-level decision-makers in business and government. At its heart, The Mekong seeks to challenge the conventional wisdom that development along the river requires progressive adherence to hard law. As the authors amply demonstrate, the manifestations of and directions taken by law in the MRB are as varied and tortuous as the river itself.
The book begins with a thorough geographic overview of the Mekong and its riparian neighbors. Here also the authors introduce actors, institutions, and interests found along the river, characterized as elements in a metaphorical drama. The authors also describe an analytical framework that arrays law along the hard/soft and international/regional/national/subnational dimensions. They describe the book’s purpose as not to empirically reveal law’s shortcomings, but rather to challenge the assumptions that more law is needed to manage complex issues in the region and that law can produce consistent outcomes. An additional historical primer urges the reader to consider context when evaluating the trajectory taken by law, a strategy that helps explain why changes in the law “have had mixed and unpredictable results” (p. 85).
The latter section of the book constitutes the analytical proving ground for the socio-legal approach. In line with the authors’ pluralist portrayal of the law, this part of the book focuses on technico-legal aspects of governance in the MRB—an intergovernmental institution (the Mekong River Commission), an environmental regulatory process (environmental assessment), and a democratic norm (transparency). The diversity of the arenas explored illustrates the ability of socio-legal analysis to span geographic scales and levels of abstraction. Each chapter in this section offers a compelling and extensive assessment of a particular socio-legal domain relevant to the Mekong that scholars can appreciate for its individual merits.
The Mekong closes with several summarized “contributions and displacements” (p. 188) emanating from the preceding analysis. The authors reiterate their earlier declarations: law in the MRB is complex, ever-present in social life, unreliable, and forged creatively and unexpectedly out of local experience and foreign influence.
Despite its great depth, the book suffers from a couple of acute shortcomings. First, it scarcely moves the ball forward with respect to theory. While the authors make passing mention of Michel Foucault’s governmentality and pay brief homage to Marxism and several democratic theorists on the subject of transparency, the book lacks theoretical anchoring. As such, the effort appears more concerned with proving the novel application of an analytical lens than with enhancing knowledge about the causes and impacts of, and solutions to, transboundary water issues. Second, the interviews figure variably throughout the book, making it difficult to track the extent to which the conclusions reached reflect empirically derived insights from the actors deemed so integral to understanding the indeterminacy of law and politics in the MRB. It would have been useful if the authors had spent more time highlighting the experiences of those most vulnerable to the political and economic forces swirling about them.
The Mekong remains a stunning accomplishment that deftly zooms in and out of various levels of governance to provide a pluralist view not only of the law, but of the actors and institutions affecting or affected by riparian technico-legal decision-making. It opens the door to fresh practical and scholarly questions regarding the efficacy of hard versus soft law, how to account for the indeterminacy of law in resolving transboundary water issues, and what strategies civil society should adopt to overcome the power differentials embedded in legal and political systems. By illuminating the pitfalls of popular assumptions about law and development, the authors recover the agency of people previously deemed unwitting bystanders in a world of complex governance, while challenging the view that legal reform should proceed in linear fashion. As such, The Mekong offers a preview of the analytical possibilities that inhere in a socio-legal approach to water politics.