The increasing structural and physical scarcity of water across the globe calls for a deeper understanding of trans-boundary water conflicts. Conventional analysis tends to downplay the role that power asymmetry plays in creating and maintaining situations of water conflict that fall short of the violent form of war and to treat as unproblematic situations of cooperation occurring in an asymmetrical context. The conceptual Framework of Hydro-Hegemony presented herein attempts to give these two features – power and varying intensities of conflict – their respective place in the perennial and deeply political question: who gets how much water, how and why?

Hydro-hegemony is hegemony at the river basin level, achieved through water resource control strategies such as resource capture, integration and containment. The strategies are executed through an array of tactics (e.g. coercion-pressure, treaties, knowledge construction, etc.) that are enabled by the exploitation of existing power asymmetries within a weak international institutional context. Political processes outside the water sector configure basin-wide hydro-political relations in a form ranging from the benefits derived from cooperation under hegemonic leadership to the inequitable aspects of domination. The outcome of the competition in terms of control over the resource is determined through the form of hydro-hegemony established, typically in favour of the most powerful actor.

The Framework of Hydro-hegemony is applied to the Nile, Jordan and Tigris and Euphrates river basins, where it is found that current hydro-hegemonic configurations tend towards the dominative form.. There is evidence in each case of power asymmetries influencing an inequitable outcome – at the expense of lingering, low-intensity conflicts. It is proposed that the framework provides an analytical paradigm useful for examining the options of such powerful or hegemonized riparians and how they might move away from domination towards cooperation.

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