It is always sad when a colleague passes on. Somehow, it is even more sorrowful when that person was a friend to and respected by so many. On 21 March 2013, Ambassador Chusei Yamada passed away in his native Japan; and the global water community lost a great friend.
During his long and distinguished career, Ambassador Yamada served in various diplomatic posts, including as Japan’s Ambassador to Egypt (1989-92), India (1993-95), and Bhutan (1993-95). He also served as an arbitrator and conciliator under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and most recently, as Special Assistant to the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan. While all eminent and critical roles, his work toward bridging the water divide between riparian aquifer nations may be his most significant legacy.
I met Ambassador Yamada in 2003 when I was first invited to participate on a UNESCO-organized advisory group to the UN International Commission (UNILC). Ambassador Yamada had been selected as the UNILC’s Special Rapporteur on the topic of Shared Natural Resources and had undertaken a process to draft principles of law that would apply to transboundary aquifers.
I had always thought it rather astute of the Commission to select someone for this role from a country that, as an island-nation, had no contiguous neighbors with whom to share transboundary fresh water aquifers. As I got to know the Ambassador, though, I realized that his selection as Special Rapporteur was even more portentous in that from the start, Ambassador Yamada poured his heart and soul into this singular challenge.
Ambassador Yamada had no formal background in ground water resources let alone training in a hard science. He was a lawyer and a diplomat, and above all a gentleman (see Ambassador Yamada’s brief bio). Yet, in the six years that our advisory group supported his efforts, the Ambassador became so well versed in hydrogeology and related water issues that the International Association of Hydrogeologists recognized him “for outstanding contribution to the understanding, development, management and protection of groundwater resources internationally” and awarded him their Distinguished Associate Award for 2008 (see IAH newsletter, Issue D30, December 2008, pp. 3-4).
Ambassador Yamada’s contribution to the global water community cannot be overstated. He made every effort to ensure that the principles that the UNILC drafted for the management of transboundary aquifers would be based on sound science as well as be socially and politically feasible. As he gained new knowledge and information, he sought to pass on that education to his colleagues in the UN; as his recommendations faced challenges based on misunderstandings and cross-border mistrust, he used his diplomatic acumen to achieve compromises.
It is true that some of the nineteen draft articles that the UNILC finally transmitted to the UN General Assembly in late 2008 may not be ideal. Nevertheless, they represent the most significant and comprehensive effort to date to address transboundary aquifers and to develop a durable legal framework for the sustainable and peaceful management of shared ground water resources. Based on that framework, nations around the world are now beginning to reach across their frontiers to coordinate and collaborate with their neighbors over their shared aquifers (see e.g., Agreement on the Guarani Aquifer [Spanish] [Portuguese]). Truly, we all owe Ambassador Chusei Yamada our gratitude for laying out such a propitious roadmap.