Archive for September, 2011

Ground water, ground water, everywhere …

Friday, September 16th, 2011

In 2008, the UN General Assembly took note of the draft articles on the law of transboundary aquifers and commended them to the consideration of its member States. Those articles were the work-product of the UN International Law Commission, which was supported by an advisory group organized by the International Hydrological Programme of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. As indicated in that resolution, the draft articles have now been placed on the provisional agenda of the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), which recently commenced in New York City. The Sixth Committee (legal) of the UNGA is scheduled to examine the question of the form that might be given to the draft articles on 18 October 2011.

Not coincidentally, the most recent issue of Water International (which is guest edited by yours truly) focuses on “Strengthening Cooperation on Transboundary Groundwater Resources.” The special issue is a compilation of articles and essays on the development of international ground water law and focuses, in large part, on the draft articles. The issue also includes a number of relevant and fascinating case studies. Here is the table of contents:

Note that unless you are a member of the International Water Resources Association or pay for individual issues, you will only have access to the abstracts (note that IWRA membership is relatively inexpensive and provides access to all present and back issues of Water International).

Libya and Water as a Weapon

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

The following post is by Rhett Larson, Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Professor Larson specializes on environmental and natural resource law and, in particular, on domestic and international water law and policy. Professor Larson offers the following post as part of his ongoing research.


The conflict in Libya raises a number of important international water law and policy questions, including the legal implications of using water supply and infrastructure as a weapon, and the role of the international community in guiding domestic water policy in transition or post-conflict governments with control of a major international waterbody. A recent article in The National (here) illustrated these issues and reported that Gaddafi’s forces had sabotaged water supply facilities, attacked water supply personnel working with the transition Libyan government, and limited access to strategic water supply locations thereby aggravating the ongoing Libyan water crisis. There were even rumors that the former regime may have even tried to poison some of the country’s fresh water resources.

In particular, the article focused on the fate of the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NSAS) in the Libyan Conflict. The NSAS is the largest fossil aquifer system in the world, underlying the territory of Libya, Chad, Egypt, and Sudan. It is also the source for Gaddafi’s “Great Man-Made River” (“GMMR”), an incredible engineering feat that provides around 6.5 million cubic meters of water daily to coastal cities in Libya and drives Libya’s economy (see this BBC article on the GMMR).

The Libyan conflict brought to the fore possible violations of international law through the use of water supplies and infrastructure as a weapon (see Protocols I and II to the Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts here and here). Assuming the rumors reported by the National are true, Gaddafi’s forces may have violated Geneva Convention prohibitions against attacking drinking water installations indispensable to the civilian population under Article 54 of Protocol I and Article 14 of Protocol II to the Geneva Convention. Libya acceded to both instruments in 1978. Gaddafi forces thus could be held as war criminals for their actions relating to attacks on water installations.

However, The National also reported that NATO airstrikes targeted GMMR installations where Gaddafi forces had hidden military assets along the pipeline. Most NATO countries have similarly acceded to or ratified the Geneva Convention protocols. The NATO attacks, according to The National, occurred at storage sites for unused pipeline, and, therefore, arguably were not to water installations “indispensable to the civilian population.” Protocol I provides exceptions to the prohibition on attacks of water installation, including when those installation used only to sustain military forces (as opposed to civilian populations). Nevertheless, attacks on water installations are strictly prohibited under Protocol I where those attacks would leave a civilian population without adequate food or water, leading to starvation or mass migration.

As the National further reported, the Libyan transitional government saw the only resolution of the water crisis being an attack to retake strategic water installations held by Gaddafi loyalists. However, that action to restore water supply carried with it risks of violating Geneva Convention proscriptions against attacks on water installations that may be supporting a civilian population. The Libyan transitional government and its partners were left with deciding how to take control of water supply and infrastructure in Libya and reverse the effects of Gaddafi forces’ violations of the Geneva Convention, without violating those Convention provisions themselves.

In the long term, the legal issues that will follow this conflict will relate to how the NSAS will be developed and its waters allocated to the nations overlying the aquifer. The law of transboundary aquifers, like the NSAS, is still developing (in the form of the draft International Law Commission’s “Articles on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers”).

Currently, international law in this area is still undeveloped and Libya remains the only country that has invested efforts to develop the NSAS to any significant extent. However, there is an effort to develop a regional strategy for using and protecting the NSAS, including an ongoing monitoring and data-sharing initiative involving all four overlying nations (see here).

It’s difficult to tell what impact a regime change (should it prove durable) would have on relations in the region as they relate to the NSAS. But just as the relationships on the Nile have changed with the ouster of Mubarak and the South Sudan referendum (see prior post on the The Hydro-Challenges of the New State of South Sudan in the Nile Basin), the outcome of the Libyan conflict could have major impacts on one of the world’s great groundwater resources.